A Lament for Our Degradation

Why did I feel such revulsion when our American president uttered a profane description of nations in Africa (and the nation of Haiti)?  First, I work with international students from around the world, and I do not want to unnecessarily offend them.  Secondly, I am deeply concerned that our president is degrading the American people, and especially members of his political party as well as his core support base (evangelicals) in ways previously unimaginable and tragic.

Saving the Environment or Being Good?

© 2014 Robert Osburn

We hear it in America almost every day: “Save the environment lest we destroy ourselves.”

Because God has given us a creation and a cultural mandate in Genesis 1:26-28, I’m right there: Yes, we must take care of this world that God has given us.  But, then there is a gnawing thought in the back of my mind: “But, what if we have no world to save, given growing evils such as family fragmentation that threaten to shred our personal worlds?”  After all, the number one correlate with inequality in the USA is the likelihood that one is raised in a single family home. Stacks and stacks of empirical evidence demonstrate that family fragmentation (single parenting, out of wedlock births, divorce, etc) destroys character and undermines possibilities for social mobility.

Must I sacrifice personal morality in order to rescue the environment?  In fact, yes, according to the tone of almost all Western media presentations of the issue: “You are damned if you do not join the environmental crusade, but, oh, we really can’t judge how you live your personal life.”

Now, if I live in Beijing, that last question will not gnaw at me the way that the choking smog does. In China, the media, especially that which is state-controlled, almost certainly avoids discussing the environment, and so the media message is something like: “We all know it’s bad, but we have no choice other than to suffer and shut up, even though something desperately needs to be done.”  Social harmony is the greater good that risks being harmed if we Chinese get honest about the smog.

So, which is it: the environment or the family and society?  We humans don’t like these binary trade-offs, nor should we.  Most of us know that it’s “both-and.” 

There is a fundamental principle that can help us straighten our priorities when we are pressured to either join a crusade to save the environment or zip our lips lest we destroy social harmony.  The principle is this: We must be good people if we are to do good. 

When the Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus (as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke) his question was about what he must do in order to inherit eternal life, but note also that he addressed his question to “Good Teacher” (Jesus).  Rather than answering his question, Jesus, as he was wont to do, challenged his premise with another question: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Luke 18: 19).

Jesus was intent on reminding the wealthy man that character precedes calling, attitude comes before action, and who we are undergirds what we are to do.  This theme pervades the Biblical text because we humans want to atone for all our evils by doing things such as saving our environment. (This desire to atone for ourselves is rooted in what Prof. J. Budziszewski at the University of Texas calls “the revenge of conscience.”) But, only One Man possessed the character by which He could atone for our evils and simultaneously make us new people with cleansed character sufficient to the calling to care for creation.  This is, in essence, the promise of what evangelicals call salvation: Jesus’ perfect character qualified Him to do what we could not, which is atone for our moral evils, including the evil of destroying our habitat, our environment. 

I believe this helps us to establish moral priorities in an evil world: Let us first attend to moral renewal, by trusting Jesus and by reforming the social environments that help shape our character, such as our families and communities. Thus, contraire to most Western media and many in the chattering classes, I claim that aggressively fixing our family fragmentation must be our first priority in the USA.  Fixing the physical environment rightly deserves our aggressive attention, but it must be the second (though never-neglected) priority.  Rules and policies for cleansing our environment must be calibrated in step with policies that restore US families.

My claim must be tested in Beijing, I know.  The principle remains true there as well as in the USA: Character precedes calling.   The character crisis in Beijing, it seems to me, is not family fragmentation, but, instead, dishonesty and corruption.  A true accounting of the actual levels of pollution and a resolute turn away from demanding bribes for services, combined with an embrace of our True Atoner (Jesus) will likely go a long way towards beginning the overdue cleanup of the air our Chinese friends breathe.  China has a massive calling to clean up its environment, but its first and simultaneous priority must be the renewal of character even while it promulgates good environmental laws. 

The renewal of character, which precedes calling, starts at the Cross.  It still is the first hope for our skies and streams.

Cultivating Virtue: A Case for Reining in the State that Wants to Reign

© 2014 Robert Osburn

From its earliest days, US leadership sought to keep the reins of government limited.  The all-consuming Leviathan state (to use Thomas Hobbes’ famous image) was, in their experience, a monster of royal proportions (as they often considered the British royal government).  Without sufficient restraint, the government would become an oppressor, especially a religious oppressor of the sort they had known in Europe with its state religions. 

Today, growing numbers of left- and right-wing libertarians seek limited government for an utterly different reason: the maximization of personal freedom.  To one degree or another, almost all college students gravitate to this argument for limiting government (except government offers benefits that must be confiscated from other taxpaying entities). Not just college students, but most Americans under Social Security age (66) believe likewise.  Unfortunately, this argument for limiting government is deeply and profoundly flawed (to be discussed in some future blog).

A superior, but not the only, case for restraining government comes not from libertarian ideology, but from the very roots of Christianity: We must restrain government in order that the virtues necessary for maintaining that government are cultivated. 

I’ll try to keep the argument for this proposition simple and straightforward.  First, as the Apostle Paul declares in the New Testament, law is a necessary, but insufficient restrainer of human passions. As Paul wrote in Galatians 3, the law is a guardian, not a liberator from our sin-induced slavery to sin.  No government and its laws can sufficiently master human sinfulness; only Jesus Christ can, through His marvelous powers of regeneration.  In mastering sin through His redemptive work, Jesus unleashed for those who believe in Him a new hunger and thirst for the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Virtue begins its gentle march inside mental and emotional territory newly liberated from sinful passions.

If this is the case, then why not use government to coerce belief in Christ, as has been done in many countries since the time of Constantine?  To coerce belief is to use law to achieve what it was not meant to achieve, while simultaneously coercing consciences unready for virtue’s gentle march.  The very important upshot is this: Government is a relatively poor cultivator of virtue, both because law is a rather poor tool for cultivating virtue and because its cultivation requires further enslavement (government-imposed coercion of conscience and religion).

So, we have a problem. We know the state functions best when its leaders are virtuous, a fact abundantly confirmed by Scripture and human experience.  If this is true, then how are leaders made virtuous if the state is a poor teacher of virtue?  The answer we offer appeals to the Kuyperian doctrine of sphere sovereignty, or the similar Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity: The cultivation of the kind of virtuous leader the state needs is best accomplished by the mediating institutions of the church, and its related parachurch tentacles.  Absent the evil of state-coerced belief, Christian institutions (and, to a limited degree, other religious institutions and traditions) are superior avenues for promoting virtue. That this is so demands another blog post, but suffice it to say that the reasoning behind this argument is robust. One caveat, however: While government cannot sufficiently produce virtuous leaders on its own, it’s also true that religious traditions and institutions will likewise fail to produce virtuous leaders if they insist on coercive methods. Thus, the call to respect to give great freedom to mediating institutions is not a license for them to use coercion as a justification for producing virtue.  Proper ends do not justify improper means.

The final point in the argument for reining in government in order to promote the virtue necessary for cultivating good government is this: Government must necessarily be reined in so that it does not shove aside or overtake the Christian mediating institutions that produce its best and most virtuous leaders.  It is in the interest of government (and its citizens) to give relatively free rein to religious institutions, since these produce the most virtuous leaders.  That few politicians understand this fact is evidenced by the constant quest to use government power to limit religious freedom (as we see in abundance today) in order to achieve the just society.  By slowly cutting off the oxygen (metaphorically-seeking) to religious institutions, whether through increased taxation and/or regulations, government insures that its own leadership will eventually be vicious rather than virtuous.

Wise legislators, rather than appealing to vague and impetuous libertarian calls for maximum freedom, will instead pay heed to biblical reasoning: Freedom results when virtue is cultivated in leaders, and that virtue is best cultivated in and through religious institutions and traditions, especially those that honor Jesus Christ.  Honoring their freedom will best ensure citizens’ freedoms in the long-term.