On Christian Civil Religion

On Christian Civil Religion

Christian Nationalism, the tendency to conflate American patriotism with the Christian faith and message, came into its modern form in the Eisenhower years. It did so largely as a civil religious bulwark in the context of the escalating Cold War and domestic “Red Scare.” It was deliberately fostered by President Eisenhower. It morphed into the political arena in a meaningful way from the 1980s to roughly 2004; the glory years of Moral Majority and, later, the Religious Right.

Frances Fitzgerald wrote about this in her book The Evangelicals (which I previously reviewed):

Eisenhower and Graham did not agree on theology or foreign policy, but they agreed on the place of religion in what both considered perilous times. They agreed that America was fighting atheistic Communism and that national survival rested on the belief of Americans in God.

“A spiritual awakening,” Graham said, “will restore our spiritual heritage, create moral stamina and consciousness, bring back the sanctity of the home . . . strengthen the bulwarks of freedom and bring integrity back to the people of the world.”

They agreed that patriotism and religious belief were synonymous and that America had a moral and spiritual mission to redeem the world. “If you would be a loyal American, then become a loyal Christian,” Graham said in one sermon, and in another, “We are created for a spiritual mission among the nations.”

Graham, of course, did not believe that just any religion would do. In a sermon titled “Satan’s Religion” he offered five ways Americans could “most effectively combat Communism.” The first was “by old-fashioned Americanism”; the second “by conservative and Evangelical Christianity”; the third by prayer; the fourth by spiritual revival; and the fifth “by personal Christian experience.” “The greatest and most effective weapon against Communism today is to be a born-again Christian,” he said.

Despite his sectarian perspective, Graham’s position was closer to Eisenhower’s than to that of liberal Protestant leaders, all of whom objected to the conflation of Christianity with Americanism, and some of whom had a disconcerting tendency to call for nuclear disarmament and talks with the Communist Chinese.

It was also closer to the majority position of the day. In 1949 Graham had styled himself as Amos, the prophet crying in the wilderness, but in four years he had become a pastor of the national civil religion.

The Evangelicals, pgs. 185-186.

This is why this article by Michael Svigel is so helpful. He offers up a third way for Christians to engage the world. A way that isn’t isolationism or a bad marriage to politicians and their all too often crocodile promises. It’s a way Svigel calls the “Conscience of the Kingdom” approach:

In this approach, Christians uncompromisingly commit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ with regard to their priorities and values, morals and message. They surrender none of these to any other lord or any other leader. The Church is the community of their primary allegiance, which they will share with no other party or political organization.

However, Conscience Christians view their relationship to the world as analogous to the conscience of an individual. On the basis of God’s Word and in allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, Christians speak and act on behalf of righteousness.

Christians address political corruption, weigh in on social ills, take righteous action on behalf of truth, justice, and mercy, and do so in ways that refuse either to empower a “strongman” or take shelter in a bunker.

Svigel’s article provides a helpful corrective for Christians who may tend to conflate American nationalism with the Christian faith. They are very different. They should REMAIN very different. The hopes and dreams that fire a Christian’s heart and mind MUST come from Christ’s kingdom, not from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Read the whole article. Then, read Svigel’s wonderful book RetroChristianity.

Good book … so far

So far, Gilbert King’s book Devil in the Grove, about Thurgood Marshall and his defense of several black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in rural Florida in 1946, is a great book about a horrifying time in our country.

The author is a very good writer. This isn’t always the case. David Garrow’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bearing the Cross, which also earned the Pulitzer Prize and covered a similar subject, reads as though it were written by a mad collector of facts who murdered his editor.

Here’s the opening paragraphs from Devil in the Grove, as a teaser:

IF THAT SON of a bitch contradicts me again, I’m going to wrap a chair around his goddamned head.” One acquittal after another had left Tennessee district attorney general Paul F. Bumpus shaking his head in frustration over the NAACP lawyers, and now Thurgood Marshall was hoping to free the last of the twenty-five blacks accused of rioting and attempted murder of police in Columbia, Tennessee.

The sun had been down for hours, and the start of a cool, dark night had settled over the poolrooms, barbershops, and soda fountains on East Eighth Street in the area known as the Bottom, the rickety, black side of Columbia, where, nine months earlier, the terror had begun.

Just blocks away, on the news that a verdict had been reached, the lawyers were settling back into their chairs, fretfully waiting for the twelve white men on the jury to return to the Maury County courtroom. They’d been deliberating for little more than an hour, but the lead counsel for the defense, Thurgood Marshall, looked over his shoulder and knew immediately that something wasn’t right.

Throughout the proceedings of the Columbia Race Riot trials, the “spit-spangled” courtrooms had been packed with tobacco-chewing Tennesseans who had come to see justice meted out. But the overall-clad spectators were equally intrigued by Marshall and his fellow NAACP lawyers: by the strange sight of “those niggers up there wearing coats and talking back to the judge just like they were white men.”

Marshall was struck by the eeriness of the quiet, nearly deserted courtroom. The prosecution’s table had been aflutter with the activity of lawyers and assistants throughout the trial, but none of them had returned for the verdict. Only the smooth-talking Bumpus had come back. All summer long he’d carried himself with the confidence that his Negro lawyer opponents were no match for him intellectually. But by relentlessly attacking the state’s case in a cool, methodical manner, Marshall and his associates had worn Bumpus down, and had already won acquittals for twenty-three of the black men on trial.

The verdicts were stunning, and because the national press had defined the riots as “the first major racial confrontation following World War II,” Bumpus was no longer facing the prospect of humiliation just in his home county. The nation was watching and he had begun to unravel in the courtroom, becoming more frustrated, sarcastic, and mean-spirited as the trial progressed.

“Lose your head, lose your case,” was the phrase Marshall’s mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, had drilled into him in law school. Marshall could tell that his adversary, seated alone at the prosecutor’s table, was in the foulest of moods as he was forced to contemplate the political ramifications of the unthinkable: his failure to win a single conviction against black lawyers defending black men accused of the attempted murder of white police in Maury County, Tennessee.

The shock from the summer’s not-guilty verdicts had worn off by November, and Marshall sensed that the white people of Columbia were becoming angrier and more resentful of the fact that this Northern Negro was still in town, making a mockery of the Tennessee courts. He’d watched patiently as Bumpus stacked the deck in his own favor by excusing every potential black jury member in the Maury County pool (there were just three) through peremptory challenges that did not require him to show cause for dismissal. And Marshall had paid close attention to the desperation in Bumpus’s closing statement to the jury, when the prosecutor warned them that if they did not convict, “law enforcement would break down and wives of jurymen would die at the hands of Negro assassins.”

None of it surprised Marshall. He was used to, and even welcomed, such tactics from his opponents because they often helped to establish solid grounds for appeals. But Marshall also noticed that the atmosphere around the Columbia courthouse was growing more volatile.

A political cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Courier now doing public relations work for the NAACP had been poking around the courthouse and had come to believe that the telephone wires were tapped and that the defense lawyers were in danger. Learning this, Marshall refused to discuss any case details or sleeping arrangements over the phones, and the PR representative reported back to Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, that “the situation in the Columbia Court House is so grave that anything may happen at any time.”

White issued a memorandum to NAACP attorneys, demanding “no telephone calls be put through to Columbia or even to Nashville [where Marshall was staying] unless and until Thurgood says that it is safe to do so.” White noted that “we are dealing with a very desperate crowd” and want nothing to “jeopardize the lives of anyone, particularly persons as close and as important to us as Thurgood and his three associates.” White even contacted the U.S. attorney general’s office and warned that if anything happened to Marshall while he was in Tennessee, it would “create a nation-wide situation of no mean proportions.”

Gilbert King, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (New York: Harper-Collins, 2012; Kindle reprint 2013), 7-9.

My Confession

Augustine has his Confessions (the Pine-Coffin translation is the best), and I have mine.

I like paper reference books. I have both a robust thesaurus and a good, intermediate dictionary near my desk which I often consult. They are:

  1. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.
  2. Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 3rd ed.

Most people don’t use references like these. If they do, they likely just Google what they want (or, perhaps, Bing it …). I don’t. I use these physical books. A lot. I have an online subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary through one of my seminaries, but I only consult it for deeper matters. For everyday work, I use these two references.

But, I was lamenting recently that my Merriam-Webster is just getting old. The last update was 2003. Now, of course, I can find anything I want online. the collegiate dictionary is updated at Merriam-Webster.com. But, you see, I don’t want to find it online. I want a physical book I can look at, open, and study.

What to do? I have a 2003 dictionary. Merriam-Webster is the last true lexicon left in America. It seemed I had little choice but to soldier on with my trusty Merriam-Webster Collegiate.

Then, it happened. I was looking for something in my thesaurus just today and noticed it was the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus.

American.

Then, I remembered that Oxford puts out a New Oxford American Dictionary (now in its 3rd edition). I hadn’t thought about it much, before. Now, I began thinking about it. I looked it up. Published 2010. Perhaps 33% more word entries than the good ‘ole Merriam-Webster. Larger. Newer. Better. It’s content culled from the two-billion word corpus that underlies the entire Oxford English Dictionary.

I decided I must have it. So, I bought it.

What’s my confession? Just that I bought a new dictionary and I’m happy about it.

That is all.

Modalism Redux? The Concept of “Personhood” in Classical Trinitarianism

Modalism Redux? The Concept of “Personhood” in Classical Trinitarianism

This series of more academic articles are the fruit of my own study about divine Personhood in the Trinity. Eventually, I will make more popular versions for “normal” people. For those who, after reading this article, are on tenterhooks wondering what my own framework is, see this sermon I preached on Trinity Sunday 2020.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us there is “One Being, three Persons.” Of course, it’s more complicated than all that, but we’ll leave it there. In this definition, what is a “person?” That’s a hard question. Two main views are common today; the classical model and the social model. The Church has traditionally held to the classical view. However, if you ask the right questions, you’ll likely find most Christians actually believe in the social model.

Why does this matter? Well, because it’s probably the most practical question you can ask about the Trinity! If the Scriptures show us three Persons who relate to one another in the Gospels, it’s important to know what “Person” means. If you hear “Person” and think of an autonomous individual with his own self-consciousness and will, then you don’t believe in the classical view, you’re at odds with all the great creeds of the Church, and you’ve abandoned the Nicene and post-Nicene understanding of God. Depending on who you ask, you may be a heretic.

Are you interested, now? 

Classical view of personhood

The Church has done most of the heavy lifting about divine Personhood in the context of Christology, so we ought to begin there. That first Christmas, the divine Son added a human nature to His divine nature. That’s why we confess that Jesus is one divine Person with two natures.[1]

How does this help us? It helps us by defining the terms “person” and “nature.” The latter is the seat of the will, mind, emotion and self-consciousness. The former is the active subject or owner of a nature. Think of a “person” as the engine that actuates a nature. The nature gives shape and color to a person, who is simply the active subject who animates or gives life to the nature.[2]

This is why, for example, the Church believes Jesus has two wills; because “will” belongs to a nature.[3] Jesus the Person acts in accordance with the will of either nature. Most Christians aren’t used to this kind of metaphysical thinking, but there it is. I won’t explain the long and difficult road the Church traveled to reach these conclusions from Scripture; a good historical theology text can do that for me.[4]

If this definition of “Person” is sound, and we have the host of Christological creeds to assure us that it is, then we know a “Person” is simply the active subject of a nature. But, God is “One Being, three Persons.” So, now we have a metaphysical conundrum. Because they’re “Persons,” are Father, Son and Spirit different active subjects of the same divine nature?

The classical position says they are.

The Church says Father, Son and Spirit share the same substance, nature or being. The Nicaean Creed says Christ is “of one substance [essence] with the Father.”[5] But, here’s the catch; the Church doesn’t understand this to mean that Father, Son and Spirit share the same category of class of “deity.” I’m a human being. You’re a human being. So, we’re each human. We share the attribute of “humanhood.”

That’s not what the Church believes about the Father and the Son.

The Church believes Father and Son are the same Being, and thus have the same essence, energy and concord of mind. They are, quite literally, identical (“I do not say similar, but identical”) and so these three Persons “have one and the same movement.”[6]

This distinction, that Christ was not a similar essence but literally the same essence as the Father, was the flashpoint for decades of bitter theological combat.[7] It’s the basis for every orthodox Church creed of any denominational flavor. We’ve already seen Nicaea. Here are a few more:

  • 1647 Westminster Confession; 2.3: “In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance …”[8]
  • 1561 Belgic Confession; Article 8: “we believe in one only God, who is one single essence, in which are three persons …”[9]
  • 1530 Augsburg Confession, Article 1: “there is one divine essence which is called and is God, eternal, without body, indivisible …”[10]
  • 39 Articles of the Church of England, Article 1: “in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance …”[11]

God is not divisible. God is One. This is why you’ve likely heard your pastor say that each Person is fully God in and of Himself. The Son is not 1/3 God, etc. In a way that’s beyond understanding, each Person is fully God because each Person is the same, identical essence. In the words of these same creeds, God is simple or indivisible.

Long ago, Augustine explained “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit intimate a divine unity of one and the same substance in an indivisible equality; and therefore that they are not three Gods, but one God.”[12] There has always been one God. And, the Son isn’t a creature. This means, by default, He must be of the same numerical substance with the Father.[13]

Words basically fail us at this point as we seek to express the inexpressible. Augustine famously said that we use these terms because we don’t know what else to say![14] John of Damascus lamented that these things are “dimly understood,” but advised “we cannot do else than express ourselves according to our limited capacity.”[15] R.C. Sproul, commenting on the excerpt from the Westminster Confession we saw above, explained:

The subsistences, or persons, are more than offices, more than modes, more than activities, more than masks, and more than ways of appearing. The church historically has said that we do not understand how God is three in one. But we do understand that He is not three gods, and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all divine.”[16]

How to tell ‘em apart?

It’s clear the main conceptual problem is how to distinguish the Persons if they are, in fact, the same Being. The Church has done this by highlighting incommunicable, unique characteristics each Person has that the others do not. John of Damascus explains:

For in these hypostatic or personal properties alone do the three holy subsistences differ from each other, being indivisibly divided not by essence but by the distinguishing mark of their proper and peculiar subsistence.[17]

These distinctions are:[18]

  • Paternity. The Father begat the Son.
  • Sonship. The Son is eternally begotten in an incorporeal, non-physical (“begotten, not made”[19]) and timeless manner (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”[20]) in a way we can’t ever understand. But, this does not imply that the Son is somehow not equal to the Father, that there was ever a time He didn’t exist, or that the Son was created.
  • Procession. The Holy Spirit is sent forth from both the Father and the Son.

How can you distinguish the Persons, then? By these unique characteristics. The Son doesn’t beget; the Father does. The Spirit isn’t begotten; the Son is. The Father doesn’t eternally proceed from the Spirit; the reverse is true. This is how the classical position avoids the charge of modalism.[21]

Robert Letham, perhaps the current dean of Reformed scholarship regarding the Trinity, calls the principles of identity of nature + personal distinctions “the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity.”[22] This is why those same creeds each speak of eternal generation and procession. However, theologians have long struggled to explain these doctrines. John of Damascus admitted they are “quite beyond comprehension,” and could not explain the functional difference between the two concepts.[23] Gregory of Nazianzus built a polemical fence more around what the doctrines are not, rather than what they are.[24]

These doctrines have been criticized by numerous 20th century evangelicals,[25] and it’s likely many non-confessional seminary students and graduates don’t understand them and can’t coherently explain them. It’s telling that the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message[26] and the GARBC Articles of Faith[27] do not mention eternal generation and procession at all. It’s as if the doctrines don’t exist.

The fruit of this negligence, in the eyes of the classical advocates, is that many conservative pastors and seminary graduates don’t understand the Trinity at all. They likely don’t appreciate that homoousia (“same substance”) means identity of essence, and that eternal generation and procession are the linchpins holding the doctrine of the Trinity together. They likely assume a modern version of “personhood.”

Lewis S. Chafer epitomizes this tendency. He explains the Persons act as agent and object to one another and “exhibit intelligence, consciousness, and moral agency.”[28] If Christology tells us that self-consciousness and moral agency are attributes of nature (and it does), then Chafer is quite wrong. This is why, in the eyes of some classical trinitarians, many evangelicals are functional tri-theists. Perhaps it’s not a stretch to suggest that, to classical eyes, many ordinary Christians are functional modalists and too many pastors are unwitting tri-theists.

The 20th century has seen an explosion of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. That’s why it’s no surprise this past century saw some re-considerations of classical trinitarianism. The idea Father, Son and Spirit were merely active subjects or subsistences of the same exact Being seemed abstract and stale; like a flat Diet Coke. Does that sum up the Gospels? Does it sum up Jesus? When we worship Jesus, are we worshipping a “distinct manner of subsisting?”[29] Is that all there is?

When we read the Gospels, there’s a relentless urge to see the Persons as real individuals with their own self-consciousness, will and intelligence. But, remember, this is not what “same substance” means at all! It means an identical sameness of Being. For if you have three independent centers of consciousness and volition with the Godhead, you have tri-theism. Thus, you have heresy.

Donald Bloesch offers perhaps the best analogy for the classical model. “I prefer to speak of one space with three dimensions – height, length and depth.”[30] This is why two evangelical theologians have dismissed the classical model because “it seems to reduce to classical modalism.”[31]

Some theologians, Emil Brunner in particular, believe it’s dangerous to probe into this metaphysical abyss. It’s “a temptation for the intellect,” he warned, “to which we ought not to give way.” For it is impossible, Brunner believed, to understand “three persons” otherwise than in a tri-theistic sense.[32] To him, it’s a fool’s errand.

We may order people to think thus: ‘Thou shalt think these Three Persons as One,’ but it is no use: there still remains an uncertain vacillation between Tritheism and Monotheism. Not only the idea of ‘substance,’ but also this idea of ‘Person,’ was much too wooden to express the mystery of the unity of the Revealer and what was revealed.[33]

Thomas Watson warned that the Trinity is a mystery, “but where reason cannot wade, there faith may swim.”[34] Nonetheless, some Christians are content to continue wading. So, what do social trinitarians have to offer in return? We turn to that in the next article.

A special thanks to my friend, Tito Lyro (Pastor, Bible Presbyterian Church, Olympia, WA and President of Western Reformed Seminary, Lakewood, WA) for reviewing this article!


[1] As the Chalcedonian Creed says, “… the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence …” (Philip Schaff, ed. The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890], 2:63).

[2] For a great discussion of these concepts in relation to Christology, see especially Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 424ff. 

[3] See the decrees from the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols., ed. Norman J. Tanner, S.J. (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 1:124-130. 

[4] There are a number from which to choose. See (1) David Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville: BJU Press, 2013), 1:207-333; (2) Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), 226-277; (3) J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised ed. (New York: Harper One, 1978), and (4) Kenneth S. Latourette, A History of Christianity: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500, revised ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1975).

[5] Schaff, Creeds, 2:59.

[6] John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” 1.8, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, in NPNF2, 14 vols. (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), vol. 2.9. 

[7] J.N.D. Kelly argues convincingly that Nicea didn’t intend the phrase to mean Father and Son were identical. He believes they meant they shared the same category, like you and I do as human beings (Early Doctrines, 233-237). He argues the homoousia was a later development that was read back in. However, Kelly agrees that orthodoxy requires homoousia because of God’s simplicity.

[8] Schaff, Creeds, 3:607-608

[9] Schaff, Creeds, 3:390.

[10] Schaff, Creeds, 3:7. 

[11] Schaff, Creeds, 3:488.

[12] Augustine, “On the Trinity,” 1.7, in NPNF1, 14 vols. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1887), vol. 1.3.

[13] Augustine, “Trinity,” 1.9. 

[14] Augustine, “Trinity,” 7.7. 

[15] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 1.2.

[16] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Systematic Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, revised ed. (Sanford: Reformation Trust, 2019; Kindle ed.), KL 1262. Emphasis added.

[17] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 2.8.  

[18] For the sake of my sanity and yours, I’m using the Western interpretation of the Holy Spirit’s procession and I won’t dare to discuss the filioque controversy. 

[19] See the Nicean-Constantinople Creed of 381 (Schaaf, Creeds, 58). 

[20] Ibid.

[21] Thomas Aquinas observed, “the Father is denominated only from paternity; and the Son only from filiation. Therefore, if no real paternity or filiation existed in God, it would follow that God is not really Father or Son, but only in our manner of understanding; and this is the Sabellian heresy,” (Summa Theologica, Q28, Art. 1, Obj. 4).

[22] Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Crossway: Wheaton, 2019), 120.

[23] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 1.8; “… there is a difference between generation and procession, but the nature of that difference we in no wise understand.”

[24] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Orations 29 and 30,” in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Yonkers: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).

[25] John Feinberg, for example, says, “Despite their firm entrenchment in both Western and Eastern traditions, the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession are unclear and are not required by Scripture,” (No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God [Wheaton: Crossway, 2001; Kindle ed.], KL 11901).

For a critical look at the historical development of the doctrine of eternal generation, see Beale, Historical Theology, 2:142-170.

Millard Erickson noted, “It must be acknowledged that for many persons today, the doctrine does not seem to make much sense. Just what does it mean to say that the Father eternally generates the Son, yet that the Son is not therefore inferior to the Father? How can the Father be the basis of the Son’s being but without this constituting some species of creation of the latter by the former? It may well be that the difficulty of making sense of this concept today is because in our time we are working within a different philosophical framework than that which these earlier theologians were utilizing,” (Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009; Kindle ed.], KL 1874-1878).

See also (1) J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), 1:110-112; (2) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), Appendix 6; (3) Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1999), 62, and (4) William L. Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 594.

[26] See http://www.sbc.net/bfm2000/bfm2000.asp

[27] See https://www.garbc.org/about-us/beliefs-constitution/articles-of-faith/.

[28] Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (reprint; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1976), 2:293.

[29] Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970), 110f. 

[30] Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 186. 

[31] Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations, 587. 

[32] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, trans. Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth, 1949), 227.

[33] Brunner, Doctrine of God, 239. 

[34] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (reprint; Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2016), 78. 

A bad argument from a good man

Grace Community Church, where John MacArthur serves, has released a statement announcing its intent to defy California’s latest rollback of church gatherings due to concerns of a resurgent COVID-19.

The statement is a disaster.

If MacArthur wishes to defy the California government, he needs to do better than this. Here are some relevant excerpts:

As pastors and elders, we cannot hand over to earthly authorities any privilege or power that belongs solely to Christ as head of His church. Pastors and elders are the ones to whom Christ has given the duty and the right to exercise His spiritual authority in the church (1 Peter 5:1–4; Hebrews 13:7, 17)—and Scripture alone defines how and whom they are to serve (1 Corinthians 4:1–4). They have no duty to follow orders from a civil government attempting to regulate the worship or governance of the church. In fact, pastors who cede their Christ-delegated authority in the church to a civil ruler have abdicated their responsibility before their Lord and violated the God-ordained spheres of authority as much as the secular official who illegitimately imposes his authority upon the church.

He continues:

History is full of painful reminders that government power is easily and frequently abused for evil purposes. Politicians may manipulate statistics and the media can cover up or camouflage inconvenient truths. So a discerning church cannot passively or automatically comply if the government orders a shutdown of congregational meetings—even if the reason given is a concern for public health and safety.

MacArthur explains:

When officials restrict church attendance to a certain number, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the saints to gather as the church. When officials prohibit singing in worship services, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the people of God to obey the commands of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. When officials mandate distancing, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible to experience the close communion between believers that is commanded in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. In all those spheres, we must submit to our Lord.

Unfortunately, MacArthur made no substantive case, here.

In the New Covenant, without a Yahweh-mandated theocracy, we find precedent for defying the State in the Book of Acts. That volume shows the Church (1) being ordered to not preach the Gospel because the quasi-civil authorities do not like the Gospel, and (2) the Church refusing to obey (Acts 4:15-20).

In order to take advantage of this precedent, the Church must argue a local jurisdiction is acting in a way that fits the pattern. Specifically, persecution or otherwise discriminatory treatment because of religion. Of course, Luke is not on hand to take us into the minds of civil authorities, so we must use a “reasonable person” standard.

So, you must separate government directives into two broad categories of impetus for our context; (1) public health, and (2) persecution or otherwise discriminatory treatment because of religion. In order to trigger civil disobedience, a church must make a plausible case Scenario #2 is happening. In this, MacArthur has not succeeded.

He’s essentially advocating civil disobedience whenever a church disagrees with civil authorities. In fact, on his argument, why should any Christian ever obey his government? This logic is a blank cheque for anarchy, for those looking for it. I expected better from MacArthur.

What about Nevada?

Consider the situation in Nevada.

The Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) declined last week to hear arguments from Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley alleging religious discrimination by the State of Nevada. Calvary Chapel sought to hold services with 90 people, with appropriate social distancing. However, Nevada restricts churches (and certain other institutions) to 50 people flat. But certain other public facilities, including casinos, are limited to 50% of the fire code capacity. Clearly, these are different metrics. When SCOTUS declined to hear the case, it let the lower court decision stand. In Justice Alito’s dissent, he noted:

The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or black-jack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance. But the Governor of Nevada apparently has different priorities.

Claiming virtually unbounded power to restrict constitutional rights during the COVID–19 pandemic, he has issued a directive that severely limits attendance at religious services. A church, synagogue, or mosque, regardless of its size, may not admit more than 50 persons, but casinos and certain other favored facilities may admit 50% of their maximum occupancy—and in the case of gigantic Las Vegas casinos, this means that thousands of patrons are allowed.

That Nevada would discriminate in favor of the powerful gaming industry and its employees may not come as a surprise, but this Court’s willingness to allow such discrimination is disappointing. We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility.

If I were in Nevada, I would give serious consideration to defying the State’s order. To return to California, if Grace Community Church feels it’s in an analogous situation, it should explain. Perhaps it cannot.

In short, MacArthur (et al) has made a bad argument. No doubt, some evangelicals will gleefully post it as though Christ has spoken and the matter is settled.

It is not settled.

Perhaps there is an argument to be made that churches can defy the California governor. John MacArthur just hasn’t made it. No Christian should rely on this statement as a basis for defying his State government. We must do better than this.

Return to California

In response to questions about what, precisely, has changed to warrant this reaction, Grace Community Church released a clarification appended to the original article. It reads, in part:

But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions. It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared.

This appears to be the beginning of an argument for civil disobedience based on government incompetence. But, again, the examples from the Book of Acts show us quasi-civil authorities who order the Church to not preach the Gospel because they doesn’t like the message. We have no example of the Church disobeying civil authorities simply because it disagrees with public policy. If Grace Community Church believe otherwise, it ought to prove its case.

Still, roughly forty percent of the year has passed with our church essentially unable to gather in a normal way. Pastors’ ability to shepherd their flocks has been severely curtailed. The unity and influence of the church has been threatened. Opportunities for believers to serve and minister to one another have been missed. And the suffering of Christians who are troubled, fearful, distressed, infirm, or otherwise in urgent need of fellowship and encouragement has been magnified beyond anything that could reasonably be considered just or necessary.

To be sure, this is hard. Every pastor feels it. But, is there really nothing that can be done? A full, corporate worship service in your auditorium is the only solution to this problem? You can’t do visitation? You can’t have smaller gatherings in homes? You can’t have outdoor services?

Major public events that were planned for 2021 are already being canceled, signaling that officials are preparing to keep restrictions in place into next year and beyond. That forces churches to choose between the clear command of our Lord and the government officials. Therefore, following the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gladly choose to obey Him.

If MacArthur believes California is doing this to deliberately target religious institutions, then he must provide evidence. If he has none, then he’s encouraging any Christian on earth to disobey the State whenever he disagrees or otherwise finds civil authority inconvenient. This is puzzling coming from MacArthur, who believes (rightly, in my view) there was no biblical warrant for the Colonies to revolt against the British!

This is a terrible document. Too many Christians will accept it uncritically. Some of them will do so because they’re anxious for theological cover, any cover, to justify what they already want to do. Others, perhaps some of the same, will be moved by conspiracy theories or animated by political animus. Given MacArthur’s stature in the evangelical world, the bad arguments here are particularly disappointing. Even worse, MacArthur encourages you to “add your signature to the statement,” regardless of whether California’s civil context is your own.

I shall close with a summary from Phil Johnson, of Grace Community Church, made in the context of a dispute with Mark Dever about a 9Marks article which disagreed with the decision:

This is not an argument that triggers Scenario #2. Again, I say it’s possible there is an argument to be made for civil disobedience in California’s context. MacArthur just hasn’t made it.

Read the statement here.

Godspeed, Dr. Houghton!

Dr. Myron Houghton, longtime Chair of Theological Studies at Faith Baptist Bible College and Seminary in Ankeny, IA, has passed away from complications from COVID-19.

Dr. Houghton was a legend in the more mature, balanced flavors of Baptist fundamentalism. His major written work was Law & Grace, which presented perhaps the most extensive and learned dispensational perspective on this issue yet in print. The publisher explains:

Law and Grace explores a misunderstood theological subject from several perspectives. After discussing Roman Catholic and Reformed views of law, gospel, and grace, the book uses an exposition of Romans to present a dispensational framework for distinguishing key theological concepts.

Pastors, church leaders, and ministry students will appreciate Myron Houghton’s thorough exegesis and practical applications, including practical advice on tithing, Sabbath keeping, and the believer’s responsibility to follow grace principles for godly living.

You can read several moving tributes to Dr. Houghton from former students and others:

I never met Dr. Houghton. I’ve read his Law & Grace twice, and need to read it again. I disagreed with it, and may well disagree again. However, his learned presentation of a dispensational view of the issue, and his more than fair representation of the other side, will likely never be equaled. In that respect, his work has and will continue to be rightly esteemed among dispensationalists like Alva McClain’s Greatness of the Kingdom.

I wish he’d written more. I wish I’d taken some theology classes with him.

A (unwelcome?) blast from the past

Here is another uncomfortable and disturbing excerpt about race relations in the post-war years from James Patterson’s wonderful book Grand Expectations: The United States 1945 – 1974, part of the famed Oxford History of the United States series:

By 1944 the protests of blacks—for Randolph and other leaders military desegregation was a top priority—had a modest effect on the armed services. The navy slowly moved toward integrated units. The army, at a loss for manpower during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, pressed blacks into combat, with positive results. But segregation persisted in the army, and racial tensions became intense.

“My God! My God!” army chief of staff General George Marshall exclaimed, “I don’t know what to do about this race question in the Army.” He added, “I tell you frankly, it is the worst thing we have to deal with. . . . We are getting a situation on our hands that may explode right in our faces.”

Though Marshall did nothing about the situation, he correctly assessed the more militant mood. A black Alabama corporal explained in 1945, “I spent four years in the Army to free a bunch of Dutchmen and Frenchmen, and I’m hanged if I’m going to let the Alabama version of the Germans kick me around when I get home. No sirreee-bob! I went into the Army a nigger; I’m comin’ out a man.”

Expectations such as these unavoidably sharpened racial conflict in the postwar South, where more than two-thirds of American Negroes still lived—mass migrations notwithstanding—in the late 1940s. There, little had changed since the late nineteenth century. Most southern blacks—at least 70 percent—lived in poverty in 1945.

Virtually everything remained segregated: schools, churches, parks, beaches, buses, trains, waiting rooms, restaurants, hotels, rest rooms, drinking fountains, and other public accommodations. All but a few white southerners believed theirs was the superior race, with a natural right to supremacy. Mississippi senator James Eastland, later to become an influential national spokesman for white racism, expressed this view without embarrassment in a wartime speech against the FEPC: “What the people of this country must realize is that the white race is a superior race, and the Negro race is an inferior race.”

Myrdal conceded that whites in the South “do not see the handwriting on the wall. They do not study the impending changes; they live again in the pathetic illusion that the matter is settled. They do not care to have any constructive policies to meet the trends.” Racist feelings promoted institutional discrimination and a virtual totality of white power. Deep South states in the early 1940s admitted almost no black lawyers, judges, or policemen.

Notwithstanding the Supreme Court decision against white primaries, Negroes in the lower South faced a range of ruses and outrages—poll taxes, impossibly designed “literacy” tests, violent intimidation—that deprived them of any voice in politics. The emblem of the Democratic party in Alabama (Republicans did not matter) was a lusty gamecock under a scroll that read WHITE SUPREMACY.

Resting very close to the surface of these white concerns, especially in the South, were complicated feelings about sex between the races. There was irony here, of course, for white men continued, as they had throughout American history, to demand sexual favors from economically and legally defenseless black women. Miscegenation was the great open secret of sexual life in the South. But state laws criminalized interracial sex as well as racially mixed marriages. (Until 1956 Hollywood’s Motion Picture Code forbade interracial marriage to be shown; no black man embraced a white woman on screen until 1957.)

And woe to black men in the South who seemed too friendly with white women. By 1945 whites less often retaliated against such behavior by lynching—there were nineteen reported lynchings of Negroes between 1940 and 1944, compared to seventy-seven between 1930 and 1934 and forty-two between 1935 and 1939—but all black American men knew that white violence was an ever-present possibility following any kind of “uppity” behavior, no matter how exaggerated by whites, especially if it was thought to threaten the supposed purity of southern white womanhood. Southern blacks who escaped violence, only to be brought to trial for such alleged offenses, faced all-white judges and juries and had virtually no possibility of justice.

Patterson, Grand Expectations, 24-25.

Uncomfortable Vignettes

I’m reading James Patterson’s volume Grand Expectations: The United States 1945 – 1974. The work is part of the acclaimed Oxford History of the United States series, which is perhaps the most authoritative historical survey available. Ditch your partisan sources and read some volumes in this series. It will open your eyes and make you a more responsible and informed citizen.

I wish to offer an excerpt from Patterson’s discussions of race in America in the post-war period. Specifically, the murder of Emmett Till in August 1955:

One of the most shocking incidents involved the killing in August of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was visiting relatives in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, an area that was two-thirds black and where no black person was on the rolls of registered voters or of juries. Till’s “crime” was to whistle at a white woman in a grocery store.

Hearing of the transgression—a taboo in much of the Deep South—the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, John Milam, drove to the sharecropper shack of Moses Wright, Till’s great-uncle, snatched Till, and drove off with him. Three days later Till was found dead in the Tallahatchie River. He had been shot in the head and tied to a cotton gin fan so that he would sink. His body was badly mangled.

Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, had the body shipped back to Chicago, where she displayed it in an open casket for four days. Thousands of people paid their respects.

National media carried the story to the country. To the surprise of many Americans who understood what Mississippi “justice” was like in such cases, Bryant and Milam were actually arrested and charged with murder. The trial, which took place before crowds of reporters, took place in September. But it was heard before an all-white all-male jury and was a charade and a circus.

The sheriff greeted black people attending the trial with “Hello, niggers.” Blacks, including reporters, were segregated in the courtroom. Wright courageously testified and identified Bryant and Milam as the abductors.

But the defense attorney played openly to local white prejudices, reminding the jurors in his summation, “I am sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.” The jury took only an hour to deliver verdicts of not guilty. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop,” a juror explained, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

A grand jury, ignoring Wright’s eyewitness account, later declined to indict Bryant and Milam for kidnapping; their bail was returned, and they went free. Wright dared not return to his shack, moved to Chicago, and never came back home.

Patterson, Grand Expectations, 395-396

1: The Age of Zealots

1: The Age of Zealots

This article is a short preface to my forthcoming series about critical race theory (“CRT”). This series will offer some reflections about CRT based on a chapter by chapter analysis of this primer written by CRT advocates.

But, first, I offer this observation. CRT is a religion.

People are very, very religious. Don’t let secularism fool you. It’s a religion, too. Everybody has a religion. You may have seen statistics that say there is a rise in people who claim no religious affiliation. Those statistics are misleading. Religion is alive and well. It’s just a different kind of religion that’s thriving. The religious economy has changed, but it’s still kicking.

Why do I say CRT is a religion? Why do I say there are lots of religions floating around in the petri dish that is the secular West? Why do I believe that even Communism, as articulated by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, is a religion?

Well, it begins by explaining what religion is. For that, I offer you the words of two sociologists and a well-respected theologian:

  1. Kerry Ferris and Jill Stein (The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology, 6th ed. [New York: W.W. Norton, 2018], 313) explain that religion is “any institutionalized system of shared beliefs and rituals that identify a relationship between the sacred and the profane.”
  2. Rodney Stark (Sociology, 10th ed. [Belmont: Wadsworth, 2007], 388-389) defines religion as “any socially organized pattern of beliefs and practices concerning ultimate meaning that assumes the existence of the supernatural.”

Millard Erickson, a Christian theologian, offers some complementary thoughts. Religion, he explains, is:

belief or doctrine, feeling or attitudes, and a way of life or manner of behaving. Christianity fits all these criteria of religion. It is a way of life, a kind of behavior, a style of living. And it is this not in the sense of merely isolated individual experience, but in giving birth to social groups. Christianity also involves certain feelings, such as dependence, love, and fulfillment. And Christianity most certainly involves a set of teachings, a way of viewing reality and oneself, and a perspective from which all of experience makes sense.

Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 6. Emphasis added.

These are all very helpful; particularly Erickson’s insistence on religion as a prism to understand reality. Here’s what we learn from these definitions about religion:

  1. An organized system
  2. with beliefs, rituals and practices
  3. that explains the relationship between the sacred and the ordinary,
  4. provides the basis for ultimate meaning and purpose,
  5. acts as a prism to interpret and explain reality,
  6. and identifies a particular deity or ideology as a Sacred object of worship.

You’ll notice I adapted Stark’s insistence on the supernatural (which, for him, is key to religion [Sociology, 389]; contra. Ferris and Stein) in criteria #6. I think this is a very good definition that anybody can understand.

Now, perhaps you can see why many flavors of religion are alive and well. CRT is one such religion, but that’s the sterile name for it. The populist version of this CRT religion is anti-racism which, ironically, is racist to its core. It’s particularly alive in the streets of our cities, in our universities, amongst our politicians and in our local, state and Federal governments.

Writing for National Review (06 July 2020), Kyle Smith penned an article titled “The White-Guilt Cult” that accurately summarizes the religious nature of the worst elements of this new McCarthyism that has captured the West. Here’s some teasers:

Anti-racism is the most critical element of a broader new Woke Orthodoxy whose other elements include environmental apocalypticism, feminism, and a severing of sexual identity from genetic indicators. Settling on a term for the new religion will take some time. Wesley Yang’s suggestion (seconded by Ross Douthat) of “the Successor Ideology” is clunky, anodyne, and a bit euphemistic given the righteous, roiling fervor and unnerving credulousness that define the cult. As Dmitri Solzhenitsyn writes in National Review Online, a YouTube prankster named “Smooth Sanchez” who walks the streets of New York demanding that white people kneel before him and declare their privilege receives surprising compliance, even as he signals his charlatanry by referring to George Floyd as “George Foreman.” 

Ben Shapiro notes astutely that the new woke religion rushes in to fill a “God-shaped hole” in secular hearts. Devotees immerse themselves in the sacred texts of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi (né Ibram Henry Rogers of Queens), books designed to make white wokesters writhe with a kind of ecstatic anguish. Indoctrination in early childhood is taken up as a parental duty (Kendi’s new board book for toddlers, Antiracist Baby, is a hot seller), parishioners engage in ritualistic incantation of sacred phrases (“Hands up, don’t shoot,” “I can’t breathe”), and there are mass displays of penitential self-abasement. All over the country, guilty white crowds have gathered to reenact the circumstances of George Floyd’s horrifying death. Scores, even hundreds, of parishioners in the new faith prostrate themselves on the ground, hands behind their back, repeating “Mama” and “I can’t breathe.” Sometimes police officers joined these displays, kneeling or prostrating themselves for the sanctified period of time: eight minutes, 46 seconds. Floyd’s death is a kind of new Crucifixion, his final words the new “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Any objective observer of the woke madness of 2020 must concede the quasi-religious overtones of this movement, whatever one thinks of its merits. The National Museum of African American History and Culture somehow managed to summarize the ideological content, the divine revelation, of this new anti-racism religion in its unfortunate article entitled “Whiteness.” This racist screed culminated in a truly horrifying PDF chart which purports to showcase systemic white racism baked into our culture:

This is an ideology; a religion. It’s a racist and warped prism that interprets reality. It’s been popularized most recently and explicitly in corporate boardrooms and in government human resources offices by Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. This is CRT.

I’ll tackle the first chapter of the CRT primer in the next article, and explain why it’s best seen as a religion that fits the criteria, above. For now, it’s enough to understand that religious zealots are still with us. Their religion is just a bit different, that’s all. And, like all zealots, they sully the moderates who have legitimate points to make.

5: Bostock and Wile Coyote

5: Bostock and Wile Coyote

Read the series about Bostock v. Clayton County.

The most important thing to know about Bostock is that it demonstrates the pillars of Western society no longer have anything anchoring them to reality. When your way of interpreting the world isn’t tied to a real, concrete revelation that explains reality, then you slowly drift away from the shore into madness.

Think of revelation as the eyeglasses that allow you to see the world and understand it. Now, think of the shoreline as reality. Then, think of that line holding your boat fast to the dock as the lifeline that connects you to reality.

In the West, we have cut the line and smashed the eyeglasses. We’re drifting away from the shore. At first, our boat bobbed aimlessly pretty close to the dock. That went on for several decades. But, we’ve now edged ever further away and the current has us. The dock is gone. The shoreline is gone.

We’re in the open sea. We’re done.

That’s what Bostock shows us. This Court decision is that last speck of land fading from sight as the horizon flattens into nothingness. It’s when we realize that this is really happening. We really are alone.

Let me explain.

You’ll recall, from the last article, that Bostock’s attorney at oral arguments made the case that Title VII includes discrimination “because of … sexual orientation” because Clayton County, by terminating Bostock allegedly because he was a homosexual, was penalizing him for not fulfilling stereotypes about what it means to be a man.

Justice Ginsburg knows the framers of Title VII did not understand “sex” to include “sexual orientation.”

Ms. Karlan -Ms. Karlan, how do you answer the argument that back in 1964, this could not have been in Congress’s mind because in –in many states male same-sex relations was a criminal offense; the American Psychiatric Association labeled homosexuality a –a mental illness?

Transcript of oral arguments; 6:13-19

Bostock’s attorney, Pamela Karlan (“Attorney Karlan”), pivoted to precedent; particularly Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (see the last article for context). The Court has already expanded “sex” to include sexual harassment. It’s also expanded it to include discrimination for failure to live up to stereotypes about sex (Oral arguments; 6:20 – 7:10). This is what happened to Bostock, Attorney Kaplan says.

She goes further, too. She declares:

Title VII was intended to make sure that men were not disadvantaged relative to women and women were not disadvantaged relative to men.

Oral arguments; 7:21-24

She frames it this way on purpose. Now, quick as you please, she makes application to her client:

And when you tell two employees who come in, both of whom tell you they married their partner Bill last weekend, when you fire the male employee who married Bill and you give the female employee who married Bill a couple of days off so she can celebrate the joyous event, that’s discrimination because of sex.

Oral arguments, 7:25 – 8:6

Attorney Karlan wants to make Bostock about stereotypes. As I mentioned in the previous article, her argument goes like this:

  1. Men must only have sex with women.
  2. But, Bostock wants to have sex with men.
  3. This means Bostock fails to act like a man.
  4. Clayton County fired Bostock because he wasn’t acting like a man.
  5. So, Clayton County discriminated against Bostock because of sex; because he wasn’t acting as the County felt a man should act.

She’s only asking the Court, she claims, to make one more analogous extension of principle to read “sexual orientation” into “sex” in Title VII. However, as I explained in the previous article, words have meanings and discrimination “because of … sex” and “because of … sexual orientation” are completely different things.

But, even if we grant Attorney Karlan’s argument, we’re immediately confronted with a problem. With several problems:

  1. Who decides what a “stereotype” is?
  2. Who decides what is socially acceptable and what isn’t?
  3. And, if you don’t acknowledge an authority, a standard, a revelation that stands above our society, above our own personal preferences and opinions, then how can you possibly answer this question?

Attorney Karlan can’t answer that question. The Court asks her repeatedly. She can’t muster a coherent answer. She retreats to social customs. For example, people call her “Ms.” and assume her gender, “[b]ut that’s not discriminatory because neither of us has been subjected to a disadvantage,” (Oral arguments, 12:23-24). The key, she asserts, is that the victim must suffer an “injury,” (Oral arguments, 13:2-5).

But, who gets to determine whether an “injury” occurred? By whose standard? By the victim’s? Or, is there something objective, something concrete, something tangible that tells us what an “injury” is, so we don’t drown in subjectivism and hurt feelings?

Justice Gorsuch sees the conundrum, and asks her about it (Oral arguments, 13:12-15). Attorney Karlan again fails to answer. She explains, by way of example, that people “know” what is normal and what isn’t:

MS. KARLAN: So there’s no categorical rule about these. For example, the fact that all of the men sitting at counsel table knew that they had to wear ties today and I was free not to didn’t cause an injury. On the other hand, even the dissenters in the Second Circuit said, if the Court said women who come to argue should argue in Hooters outfits and the men should wear —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: — No —

MS. KARLAN: — ties —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: — we’re not – we’re not — I mean —

MS. KARLAN: I know.

JUSTICE GORSUCH: —we can talk absurd examples —

MS. KARLAN: No, but I can —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: —or we can talk real world examples.

Oral arguments, 13:16 – 14:9

Justice Gorsuch, who appears exasperated at this point by Attorney Karlan’s deliberately absurd strawman, gets to right to it:

JUSTICE GORSUCH: All right. What I’m –what I’m suggesting, counsel, is that there are male and female bathrooms, there are dress codes that are otherwise innocuous, right, most –most people would find them innocuous.

But the affected communities will not. And they will find harm. And how does your test deal with that one way or the other? That’s what I’m asking you to address, if you’d like to.

Oral arguments, 15:4-13. Emphasis added.

He gets it. How does Attorney Karlan avoid subjectivism? Where is the concrete test for “injury” in order to determine whether discrimination happened? Without it, you just have one person saying another person hurt his feelings! And, by what standard can we say, “No, that’s not good enough?”

Attorney Karlan has no answer. To be fair, no answer is possible.

MS. KARLAN: Yes. My test says that you have treated the people differently because of sex, which is what we are asking you to hold here. When you treat a gay man who wants to date a woman differently than a man –woman who wants to date a woman, that –that’s discrimination.

Oral arguments, 15:14-20

Yes, but who says the discrimination happened? How do you figure out whether what the stereotype is and whether the victim was fired for not living up to it? Is there some book, manual or pamphlet; some something that tells us what men and women are? What “sex” is?

Karlan then retreats behind the “reasonable person” concept and founders on the reef under Justice Gorsuch’s questions:

MS. KARLAN: Then you get to what I’ve said, which is you have to ask whether a reasonable person under these circumstances would be injured by the imposition of the particular sex-specific world. So when the Chief Justice calls me Ms., I am not injured. When I go to a –when I —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: You are not, but another —

MS. KARLAN: It –it —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: —person might be —

MS. KARLAN: Right. And the question —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: Are they reasonable or not? And –and I’m –I’m –I’m just -I’m wondering, how do you decide those cases?

MS. KARLAN: An idiosyncratic preference does not void an otherwise valid dress code or bathroom rule.

Oral arguments, 15:21 – 16:13

This is amazing. She doesn’t see it. Do you see it? Read it again.

How do you determine whether a “reasonable person” would be injured by the actions of the employer? By whose standard? What’s reasonable to one person might be pretty unreasonable to another. Attorney Karlan waves her hands and claims an “idiosyncratic preference” has no merit.

Again, who determine what that is? Society? 50 years ago transgenderism was more than idiosyncratic; it was perverse. Is this the route we ought to go? Whatever culture says is “good” is good? And, when culture changes than the laws need to change, too?

Attorney Karlan fares no better when Justice Sotomyor asks the same questions. I’ll quote the exchange in whole because it’s worth it:

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: But you’re begging Justice Gorsuch’s question. We were following up on the same thing —

MS. KARLAN: I truly am not trying to —

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: —which is —

MS. KARLAN: —beg the question.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: —how do we differentiate the two? What is the legal test that you propose to say this is discrimination because of sex, as you said, calling you one thing and your friend another is discriminatory, but it’s okay because there’s no harm. So what’s the test we apply to, say, when it is harm and when it isn’t?

MS. KARLAN: Let –let me try to be clear.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Let’s be —

MS. KARLAN: It’s not discrimination to call me Ms. Karlan and to call Mr. Harris, Mr. Harris. It is –it is because of sex that we were treated differently.

But as this Court has made it clear several times, discrimination consists in an injury that the law is prepared to recognize. And generally across all statutes, this isn’t a Title VII, and this is why I’m really not begging the question here, the Court has said de minimis effects are exempted from statutes presumptively. So if this Court thinks or if another court —

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: So why —

MS. KARLAN: —thinks —

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: —is a dress code for Hooters that requires all women to wear a scantily –a scant dress, is that discriminatory?

MS. KARLAN: Yes, it is.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Is it discriminatory for the woman who just doesn’t want to wear it because it’s demeaning?

MS. KARLAN: Yes, it is.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: So how about, is it discriminatory for the restaurant not to hire a transgender man who wants to wear the uniform?

MS. KARLAN: Well, you’re going to get —

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: The scant uniform.

MS. KARLAN: I –I mean, I do want to get to the question of sexual orientation

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: No, no, no —

MS. KARLAN: –here, but I understand –I understand.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: But I think what you’re alluding is, and I still haven’t heard —

MS. KARLAN: Yeah.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: — the explanation, which is the question of how do we tell what’s actionable and not?

MS. KARLAN: Well, if —

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: At what –when does that discrimination become an issue?

Oral arguments, 17:15 – 20:2.

The line has been cut. The eyeglasses smashed. The boat has drifted away, been caught by the current, and has lost sight of land. Now that we’re adrift, we have nothing holding us to reality.

What is that objective standard, that anchor, that line holding us fast to the dock of reality? It’s God’s revelation to us, in the form of the Christian scriptures. Suffice it to say that morality can and will be legislated. Always has and always will be. Why else do you think it’s against the law to murder someone? The only question is which morality, and its claim for authority in our lives and in society. But, that’s an article for another time. For now, I leave you with this article outlining the Christian mission to this secular age.

In the next article, we’ll examine Justice Gorsuch’s opinion.