Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

31 October 2014

Kindle edition

This is to let everyone know that We Answer to Another is now available in a Kindle edition.


27 October 2014

Freedom as authority

More than half a century ago, Roman Catholic philosopher Yves René Simon observed that authority has come to have a bad reputation in the modern world. Our western societies value personal freedom so highly that any intervention by an authority outside our own wills is deemed an imposition at best and outright oppression at worst. The French Revolution of 1789, perhaps more than any other event in recent history, has implanted in western consciousness the myth of the heroic popular revolt against oppressive authority. So thoroughly did the Revolution succeed in this that the default position for many of us today is to be suspicious of authority’s claims from the outset, whatever their content.

The cultural shifts of the 1960s further exacerbated this prejudice against authority when the larger liberal tradition took the form of what I have elsewhere called the “choice-enhancement state.” By the turn of the last century, the state had expanded to check the private economic power of trusts and monopolies and to preserve market competition. By the 1930s, the state had expanded further to secure equality of opportunity for everyone, which necessitated the development of the welfare state. During the 1960s, however, professed progressives concluded that the principal threat to individual freedom was not the state, big business, or economic privation, but traditional customs and social mores that claimed authority over people’s lives and actions. Only if we can manage to liberate individuals from the authority of the past, they reasoned, will they truly be free. This movement from authority to autonomy called for a new ethic based on John Stuart Mill’s harm principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

The problem was, and is, that there has never been a society for which this harm principle forms the primary, much less the sole, basis of freedom. In a mature differentiated society, there is a multiplicity of non-state communities, each of which has its own identity and its own standards for membership. These standards are intrinsically related to the mission and task of the communities and necessarily impose constraints on those subject to them. But because the homogenizing worldview of liberal individualism exalts individual autonomy over all standards outside the will, adherents regard with suspicion all communities based on non-individualist assumptions, especially those such as marriage, family, and even the gathered church which are not obviously reducible to private contract.

All of these factors together have tended to reinforce the notion that authority and freedom are at least in tension with each other, if not altogether opposed. If freedom expands, then we assume that authority must proportionately diminish. If we seek to advance freedom, we must concomitantly try to decrease the role of authority.

But what if it turns out that personal freedom, far from being opposed to authority, is simply another manifestation of authority? If this is true, and I believe it is, we must change the way we view our society. When a child is small, she is directly subject to her parents’ authority in the minutest areas of life. They keep a close eye on her, feed her, clothe her, house her, and generally take care of her. But as she grows to maturity, her parents increasingly pull back, allowing her to take on more and more responsibility for the direction of her own life. And that is as it should be. As Simon observes, parental authority properly aims at its own disappearance. Yet as parental authority continually recedes, the adolescent, who is now free to set her own life goals, is simply assuming more authority for the direction of her life.

More than a century ago, Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper coined the term “sphere sovereignty” to account for the diverse forms of community found in the mature society. Families, business enterprises, states, labor unions, and schools each have their own proper sphere of authority, as ordained by God. But so does the individual as individual. The freedom that individuals legitimately claim for themselves is another manifestation of authority which other authorities are bound to respect. Although it may seem counterintuitive in our post-1789 world, I strongly believe that respect for the human person and his status as image of God is dependent on a general respect for authority in all of its pluriform manifestations.

Cross-listed at Capital Commentary and First Thoughts.


23 October 2014

Seeking self or costly discipleship? Standing with the persecuted

The world is definitely smaller than it was even a decade ago, and, through the Internet and Facebook (which is very nearly a distinct medium of communication in its own right), we are in continual and unprecedented contact with distant friends, family, and many others around the globe. So why is it that the Christian faith, with its increasingly global reach, can differ so radically from one part of the earth to another? I do not primarily have in mind the various customs, rituals and cultural mores that differentiate one people from another. I am referring to something much more basic.

On this side of the pond, for example, we were recently treated to this bit of purported wisdom from one of the more prominent purveyors of the prosperity gospel: “Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy.” Don’t get me wrong; there is much to be said for happiness. Few of us would deliberately court unhappiness. Moreover, there is definitely a theme in the Bible connecting human flourishing with keeping God’s word (e.g., Psalm 128). Yet the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and a huge number of the Psalms should keep us from drawing too facile a connection here. In fact, the life in Christ is typically difficult and its undoubted rewards far from immediate.

Two of the more memorable chapters in Ross Douthat’s perceptive book, Bad Religion, are devoted to the prosperity gospel and the “god within.” In reading them one is particularly struck by the similarities between the two heresies in that both are focused on the self and its aspirations rather than on the path of obedience as set forth by the historic faith. Happiness can be found in the accumulation of material wealth, despite the contrary testimony of Matthew 6:24, or salvation can be found through improving one’s emotional well-being, again contrary to the witness of a host of scriptural texts which counsel, not feeling better about oneself, but repentance from sin and trust in Christ as Savior. Our North American heresies tend to reflect the priorities of liberal individualism: expanding the self and its claims with the assumed blessing of a god whose highest priority is our personal felicity. This god makes no demands on us that might conflict with our own chosen goals. Or, as Douthat puts it, he is “less like a savior than like a college buddy with really good stock tips” (189).

Across the pond, on the other hand, we are seeing daily reports from the Middle East and elsewhere of Christians, some as young as children, being put to death for refusing to abandon their faith in the face of the worst persecution imaginable. As ISIS/ISIL steamrolls its way across northern Mesopotamia, ancient communities of Christians are being uprooted or obliterated in its path. Those of us outside the region are horrified and sense that our governments are incapable of acting to stop these atrocities. Amidst this sudden upsurge in persecution, some of us find ourselves wondering what we would do in similar circumstances. If something like ISIS/ISIL were to overrun much of North America, would we follow the path of obedience even if it meant joining the “noble army of martyrs” from ancient times? If the heresies Douthat describes should, God forbid, end up dominating the spiritual landscape of North America, would we be willing to give up our lives for the sake of a gospel so fixated on the self and its needs? This question hardly requires an answer.

It is, of course, unwise to romanticize unduly the Christians of the global south. Like us, they too share in the human reality of sin and are in need of redemption in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, at the moment they also need us to stand in solidarity with them, and we will not do so credibly if we have accepted a faith that downplays the path of obedience to a God who claims the totality of our lives as his own. It is just possible that the best antidote to a peculiarly western religion focused on the self is to open our eyes and ears to our persecuted brothers and sisters overseas.


22 October 2014

The death of the parish: a motor-driven ecclesiology

For most of the last two millennia the gathered or institutional church was organized on a territorial basis, beginning already in New Testament times when Paul's letters and John's Revelation were addressed to the churches in specific cities of the Roman Empire, such as Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. By the sixteenth century, when Christians were quarrelling over ecclesiology among other things, no one thought to question the traditional parish church model. The parish church serves a local community, and its membership is as diverse as the people of that community. Young and old, rich and poor, men and women worship together. According to this model, people who work together or buy from and sell to each other during the week gather on Sunday in their neighbourhood church to worship the God who has redeemed them in Jesus Christ.

Beginning just over a century ago, all this changed. Catholics and Protestants alike have now embraced a new ecclesiology based on the consumer model. Adam Graber tells us that this huge shift was sparked by the invention of the automobile: How Cars Created the Megachurch and put churchgoers in the driver's seat. As recently as the turn of the last century my great-grandparents, who lived in rural southeast Michigan, attended a Friends Church. Not because they were Quakers, but because it was nearest their farm and thus easily accessible. In their world a megachurch would have been an impossibility. If you couldn't walk or ride a horse or horse-drawn vehicle over unpaved country roads, you simply couldn't get there at all.

Now virtually every family has at least one automobile, and this reality has transformed, not only our cities, but also our churches. Here's Graber:

Cars have made distance less of a factor in our lives. For this reason, church goers can choose from a marketplace of churches. But in order to decide, they have to narrow down the options, and when they do, they (naturally) consider their personal preferences first. They’ll try on different churches and see what “fits.”

Pastors, in reaction, are today forced to account for these new dynamics of affinity. Because church shoppers are exploring their options, area pastors often respond by targeting “felt needs.” For pastors, attracting and retaining church goers often means preaching on the topics people are looking for.

The most important consequence of this trend is that the gathered church – as distinct from the church as corpus Christi, which is all-encompassing – has been reduced to a mere voluntary association of like-minded individuals who can join and quit, or come and go at their discretion. The church, like any other commodity in the marketplace, exists only to serve the needs of its individual members. In this respect John Locke's definition, scarcely deemed orthodox in seventeenth-century England, seems uncontroversial today: “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls” (emphases mine). Note the contrast to the scriptural definition of church as the covenant community of those called by God into a living relationship with him.

The territorial parish cannot easily withstand this new ecclesiology. Near universal automobile ownership has made Christians in virtually every tradition into consumers of perceived spiritual goods. It is de rigueur these days to claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” because religion implies binding obligation within a larger authoritative community, while spirituality leaves the individual in control and need not entail a transformed life and redirected affections. Everyone becomes a seeker and churches are compelled to attract potential members by whatever means necessary. Why? Because no one has to show up, after all. They can easily drive past the nearest church building and find another congregation that better meets their subjective needs. Or they can simply stay home and sleep late. The net effect is that the institutional church has no more authority than its members are willing to grant it. In other words, it is one more voluntary association not essentially different from the local birdwatching society.

Now it is not quite right to blame the automobile as such for this defective ecclesiology. After all, it is our use of the automobile that lies ultimately at its origin. Yet no technology is neutral. The automobile has exacerbated the individualistic tendencies already at work in our culture, empowering individuals to treat even so central a community as the church as a mere extension of their personal tastes.

We cannot, of course, return to a pre-automotive past. That option is closed to us. However, what if every new church building were to forgo the ubiquitous parking lot in the interest of restoring a normative ecclesiology? Might it force the churches to reach out to their own neighbourhoods? Might it compel people to re-embrace the parish model, attending the church to which they can most easily walk? Or have the corroding powers of consumerism eliminated this as a viable possibility once and for all? Giving up our motorized vehicles will not happen any time soon, short of our oil wells finally running dry. In the meantime, we should do what we can to advance and support an ecclesiology less obviously dependent on the consumer model and more dependent on the grace of God in Christ.

David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada and is the author of Visões e Ilusões Politicas, the recently-published Brazilian edition of his award-winning Political Visions and Illusions.


15 September 2014

No compromise: Trudeau's dubious defence of 'rights'

In a Westminster-style political system ordinary Members of Parliament have little leeway to vote as they like, as they are in virtually all cases bound by party discipline. If you are a member of the Conservative parliamentary caucus, you must vote with your caucus or face sanctions. Although both Canada and the (thus far) United Kingdom operate under this system, party discipline is more rigid in the True North than in the Sceptered Isle. However, even here in Canada ordinary party discipline will occasionally be relaxed if divisive moral issues are at stake. In 1976 Bill C-84 passed narrowly on a rare free vote in the House of Commons. Bill C-84 legally abolished capital punishment, with the party leaders allowing members to vote their conscience.

Thirteen years later the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proposed Bill C-43, An Act Respecting Abortion, intended to fill the legal vacuum created by the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1988 decision in R. v. Morgentaler, which invalidated Section 251 of the Canadian Criminal Code. Once again, because abortion was deemed a divisive moral issue, the political parties permitted a free vote, thereby avoiding the need to take a stand and risk alienating a segment of the electorate that might be needed at the ballot box. The bill passed the Commons, but it died in the Senate, Parliament’s so-called upper chamber. Although the appointed Senate rarely obstructs legislation approved by the popularly-elected Commons, in this case it did so because Senators were not bound by normal party discipline.

There is some wisdom in allowing representatives to vote according to conscience when confronted with an issue on which there is no popular consensus. Whether the controversial measure passes or is defeated, the party as a whole need not assume collective responsibility, thereby enabling it to focus on other potentially less divisive issues.

However, Justin Trudeau, whose late father served as Prime Minister for a decade and a half, seems to have abandoned this wisdom: Justin Trudeau says abortion rights trump MPs’ freedom to vote their conscience.

“I have had a lot of Liberals come up to me and say, ‘I don’t quite understand, isn’t the Liberal party about freedom and about defending people’s rights?’” Trudeau said in an interview with CBC’s The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright.

“Absolutely it is. And the rights that women have fought for over decades to be in control of their own bodies and to control their own reproductive health is not a right I’m going to brush aside to defend the freedom of speech or the freedom to vote a particular way for an MP.”

Trudeau has said that any Liberal MP, regardless of their personal beliefs, would have to vote against any proposed legislation that could limit a woman’s right to an abortion.

“If they vote in favour of restricting women’s access to abortion, that’s taking away their rights. And that is something that we will not accept in the Liberal party. We are the party of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that’s a serious, serious position that Liberals have to defend.

“It’s time the Liberal party actually defended rights,” he said.

There can be no doubt that Mr. Trudeau is sincere in his desire to defend human rights. Yet, as Mary Ann Glendon has pointed out, the use of claimed rights as a trump card tends to end debate prematurely and does little, if anything, to advance dialogue. In this case, Trudeau has unnecessarily risked offending would-be supporters in the pro-life camp. Given that his party is in third place, this may not be the most astute political move on his part.

Yet it does demonstrate the extent to which a hardened ideological commitment can assume near religious fervour, as its adherents willfully ignore other factors that might mitigate that commitment. In particular, as the claims of sexual freedom have expanded, they have effectively usurped the space occupied by other, arguably more politically significant, liberties such as religion, speech and the press. Sexual freedom will brook no dissent, and that alone should tell us that we have crossed into the dangerous territory of idolatry.

Is it possible for believing Christians and others less enamoured of the claims of sexual freedom to compromise with its proponents for proximate political purposes? It should be, in theory, but we evidently need not look to Trudeau to provide a way forward.


03 September 2014

Trinity Talk interview

The Rev. Uri Brito has posted his interview with me on the subject of my book, We Answer to Another. The interview can be found here.


28 August 2014

Visões e ilusões políticas

I am pleased to report that the Portuguese edition of my first book, Political Visions and Illusions, has just been released by Brazilian publisher Vida Nova: Visões e ilusões políticas (although the website lists it as not yet available). I look forward to receiving a copy in the near future. Incidentally, the translator is my good friend and colleague Lucas Grassi Freire. Obrigado, Lucas, e obrigado, Vida Nova!


27 August 2014

One hundred years later: the Psalms and the First World War

Everyone knows how it all started. It was the end of June in 1914. Tensions had been building for decades among the rival European powers. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was visiting Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, when he and his wife were assassinated by a Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. Vienna’s annexation of that province six years earlier had nearly led to war then, but now the real thing was only one month away. When the dust had cleared and the war was over four years later, some sixteen million people had died, and the world was never the same again. Ancient empires fell, with kings and emperors toppled from their thrones and exiled. Entire populations were cruelly uprooted from their homes, simply because they happened to live on the wrong side of arbitrary boundaries set during and after hostilities had ended.

Nearly four decades ago, I visited Prague, the capital of what was still communist-ruled Czechoslovakia and, before the First World War, part of Austria-Hungary. During my time there, I purchased in an antiquarian bookshop a Czech-language New Testament and Psalms published in 1845 for “Evangelical Christians of the Augsburg and Helvetic Confessions,” that is, for Lutheran and Reformed Christians. The print was in the old German black letter font, and even some of the spelling was obsolete.

It was not until seven years ago that I noticed something interesting about the Psalms in this volume. An early owner of the book, whose surname was Lány, read through the Psalms at the pace of approximately one psalm per day (except, of course, for Psalm 119), taking time to mark the date at the top of each. He started with Psalm 1 on “1./8.”, or the 1st day of August 1914, and continued until he read Psalm 150 on “18./I. 1915,” that is, the 18th of January 1915.

I am convinced that the timing of his praying through the Psalms was not accidental.

Read the complete article here.


25 July 2014

Skillen on the Good of Politics

Does politics have only a remedial function or are we created for political life from the beginning? Does government exist only to counter the effects of human sin, or does it play an important role in human life even apart from sin? These are among the crucial questions James W. Skillen addresses in his new book, The Good of Politics: a biblical, historical, and contemporary introduction. Founding president of the Center for Public Justice, Skillen, now retired, has woven a rich tapestry that owes much to the tradition of political reflection associated with the great Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper.

The first part of the book lays out the contours of the biblical drama, particularly as it relates to the Christian's task of citizenship in the political community. As a Reformed Christian, Skillen characteristically begins with the sovereignty of God and the comprehensive scope of his kingdom. Indeed God's kingdom is not merely a spiritual kingdom, as some would have it, but has relevance for the totality of human life in his creation. God's kingship is "over every human authority in this world" (9). Caesar and God do not exercise separate domains, for even that to which Caesar has a relative claim belongs ultimately to the God who has given him his high office. In this respect, all two-kingdoms approaches to life fall short by failing to give God his full due.

What I most appreciated about this section is Skillen's exploration of the biblical notion of sabbath and its relationship to our work as God's image-bearing creatures. Many Christians tend to look at sabbath observance as a mere legalism telling us what we can and cannot do on the Lord's Day. But without a proper emphasis on sabbath, we fall into the temptation of thinking we can usher in God's kingdom by our own efforts. To be sure, we have definitely been given a task – multiple tasks in fact – to fulfil in his kingdom, but it is God himself who crowns our efforts and brings them to their ultimate fruition at the Seventh Day of his grand redemptive-historical week. As Skillen puts it, "Christians who focus only or primarily on the 'next life' fail to see how their lives and labors in this age are part and parcel of what God will bring to fulfillment in the age to come. By contrast, those who focus only on life in this age miss the revelatory and anticipatory meaning of who they are and what they are doing" (24-25). God is pleased to use our efforts to advance his coming kingdom, but only he can redeem these efforts through his Son Jesus Christ. Skillen is in the process of writing a new book precisely on the topic of creation's sabbath and the political vocation, and, if his discussion here is any indication, we have much to look forward to when it is published.

The second and middle part of the book deals with "key historical developments," extending from the early Christian era up to the present, with special emphases on Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, the Anabaptists, John Calvin and Johannes Althusius. Here Skillen explores the ambiguity in Augustine's identification of the two cities, which in some passages seem to encompass two quite distinct communities of persons driven by their disparate loves, but in others appear to mark a contrast between the present earthly life and eternal life in the heavenly city that transcends it. If we follow the latter approach, then it turns out that the two cities do not manifest themselves in two different groups of persons but encompass many of the same persons in the present age. This ambiguity is carried forward especially in Lutheran circles, but also by other Christians who tend to read the spiritual/directional opposition between obedience and disobedience into the structural differentiation of such human communities as state and gathered church.

I was pleased to see Skillen's treatment of Althusius in particular, because the 17th-century political and legal theorist is unjustly neglected in the English-speaking world, though he is better known among German-speakers due to the influence of the great 19th-century legal scholar Otto von Gierke. Althusius laid the groundwork for a revived notion of citizenship as active membership in a political community as opposed to mere subjection to a monarch. More significantly, for Skillen's purposes, Althusius articulated a theoretical basis for what might be called the pluriformity of communities and authorities characterizing a mature differentiated society. (In this respect, Gierke's effort to view Althusius as a precursor to Rousseau's popular sovereignty is wrongheaded.) Catholic social teachings have labelled this conception subsidiarity, while Reformed thought has spoken of "sovereignty in its own sphere" or sphere-sovereignty. Both of these have profound implications in countering the influence of the various totalistic ideologies that have so marred recent human history.

Then there is John Locke, whose treatment comes, not in the second section of the book, but in the third. Lock, of course, had a powerful influence on the American founding, as evidenced by Thomas Jefferson's use of his thought in the Declaration of Independence. Many American Christians are reluctant to take on Locke because of his exalted status in that country's civil religion. Indeed Locke is a moderate compared to such radical French Enlightenment philosophers as Rousseau and Voltaire. His thought seems superficially to be more compatible with conventional religious observance. Nevertheless, Skillen effectively reveals the defects in Locke's approach, especially his understanding of government as the product of social contract: "for Locke there is no such thing as public authority or public government but only the consolidation of many private self-governments into a common or compound self-government" (172). Government is not ordained by God to do public justice; rather it is established by sovereign individuals to fulfil their own chosen purposes. As Skillen puts it, "Locke's god simply turns over the world to autonomous individuals for their own individual appropriation" (180). Government is ancillary to the needs of these individuals. This is all part of the larger liberal tradition's tendency to reduce the diversity of human communities to voluntary associations.

In the third part, Skillen makes a positive case for "engaging politics today." Much of this will be familiar to those who have read his previous books, especially In Pursuit of Justice, but it is worth revisiting this material in the larger context of the present book. Here he reaffirms that "God created humans for political life. God did not establish government and politics only in reaction to sin" (117). Along with this comes the basic conviction that justice is not simply about the needs and wants of individuals. A biblical understanding of justice requires that government attend to the institutions of civil society as well by protecting their distinctive identities and unique tasks in the world. Government itself is not intrinsically tethered to a pagan ethic, as Robert Kaplan and Anabaptists alike aver, but, like every human community, is obligated to live out in its own proper way the divine command to love God and neighbour.

The third part, where he fleshes out the implications of the first two parts, is where some readers may take issue with Skillen. First, electoral reform.

Like most English-speaking democracies (with the notable exception of New Zealand), the United States has a single-member-plurality electoral system, popularly known as first-past-the-post (FPTP). This means that the entire country is divided up into so many territorial constituencies, each of which elects one member to the legislative body based on who receives the highest number of votes, even if it falls short of an absolute majority. Skillen rightly points to the defects of this system, which are even more obvious in Canada, where majority governments are almost always formed based on only 35 to 45 percent popular support. Skillen's proposed reform would turn each of the 50 states into "a single, multimember district from which the state's allotted number of House seats would be filled by means of PR [proportional representation]" (149). This would ensure that few votes would be wasted, as they are under the current arrangement, and that more voters would be represented by the parties for which they voted. Among other things, he believes that this would hold Congress more accountable to voters, facilitating the advance of the public good, breaking the power of special interest groups, and diminishing pork barrel politics.

Although I would like to think Skillen is right, I suspect that he has overstated the likely virtues of PR and of the more highly disciplined parties that it might encourage. European democracies, which generally operate under some form of PR, are not immune to the influences of interest groups, even if the institutional context in which they are compelled to operate is significantly different from that of the United States. Furthermore, as this page from the German Bundestag's website indicates, the input of such groups may actually be solicited as part of the formal legislative process. To be sure, public justice cannot simply be the sum total of the aggregate influence of the most powerful interest groups. Yet, as the late Sir Bernard Crick understood, political authorities must take into account a diversity of interests, recognizing that the common good consists, not in abstractions hovering above the hurly-burly of ordinary politics, but in the often contentious deliberations over the relative merits of their respective claims on the body politic. Here even local communities need to have a voice, which FPTP does well at representing, but which a party-list form of PR would not. This is something that Skillen perhaps needs to acknowledge more explicitly.

My own preference would be for a form of PR that preserves the best of the current arrangement, such as the mixed-member-proportional (MMP) system currently in use in the Federal Republic of Germany, New Zealand and elsewhere. Then again, if most North Americans are unpersuaded of the injustice of FPTP, they may not find the case for any form of electoral reform especially compelling, which explains the failure of the 2007 referendum on MMP in Ontario and repeated failed efforts to abolish the Electoral College in the US. Clearly those of us favouring reform must surmount the twin hurdles of complacency and cynicism standing in the way of just representation.

This brings us to a related issue, namely, the adequacy of the US Constitution to account for an America which is no longer a collection of federated states but is a fully integrated national political community. I suspect that many readers will bristle at the thought that their country is saddled with an "outdated Constitution" (134). Many conservative protestant Americans identify strongly with a narrative in which the framers of the Constitution play a near messianic role and the Constitution itself functions as something approaching a scriptural text. Skillen bemoans the fact that there have been so few efforts at updating this document to bring it into the 21st century (135).

However, I would like to suggest from my Canadian experience that focusing too heavily on amending a constitutional document may not be the most fruitful avenue for pursuing political change – even badly needed change. We've tried it north of the 49th parallel more than once, and the last two such efforts have failed miserably. Moreover, there will always be a certain distance between a constitutional document, however well- or badly-framed, and the empirical constitution, that is, the political system as it actually functions. For example, no matter how carefully a document delineates the respective powers of federal and state/provincial governments, the balance between the two levels will shift over time with the changing needs of the polity. And all of this occurs without a word of the document being altered.

There is much more to be said on the issue, but I will limit myself to observing that Skillen may not be wise to risk tampering with the popular reverence for the Constitution as a document when there may be other, more effective ways, e.g., legislative, judicial or merely conventional, to compensate incrementally for deficiencies in the larger political system. In this respect there is something to be learned from Martin Luther King's appeal to the Constitution, and not just to an intangible natural right, to secure the status of black Americans as full citizens of the body politic.

The Good of Politics is part of a series of projected volumes by Baker Academic on Engaging Culture, and as such it admirably fulfils its purpose. However, the publisher might wish to move this information into a preface from its current position opposite the title page where it is easily missed.

Readers have come to appreciate the wisdom and insight that Skillen has displayed in his work over the years. This new book certainly lives up to our expectations. The Good of Politics is a biblically and historically rich primer on the political life for everyone persuaded that the claims of Christ extend to our calling as citizens. Of course, not everyone will necessarily accept that political life has a creational basis, and even Kuyper had his doubts on this score. But Skillen makes a strong case for this position here, and even sceptics would do well to add this book to their summer reading list.


14 July 2014

Like father, like son: The Trudeau legacy

In 1969 the Criminal Law Amendment Act, known as Omnibus Bill C-150, was granted Royal Assent. Introduced two years earlier by Pierre Trudeau while he was still federal Justice Minister, the bill had sparked heated debate in the Commons and the popular press, because it proposed, among other things, to decriminalize homosexual acts, permit abortion and contraception, and allow government-regulated gambling. In the midst of shepherding this bill through the parliamentary process, Trudeau famously asserted that “there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” and that “what's done in private between adults doesn't concern the Criminal Code.”

As a belated recognition of the intrinsic limits of government, this statement would appear indisputable. After all, a law against nonmarital sexual activity could hardly be enforced with any consistency and would necessitate something close to a totalitarian surveillance state. Even Thomas Aquinas admitted centuries ago that human laws cannot suppress all acts of vice, only those egregiously detrimental to the commonwealth. So far, so good.

However, there was more behind C-150 than recognition of reasonable constraints on government. The sexual revolution of the 1960s had already begun to upend the widespread acceptance of a normative understanding of sexuality and to substitute for it an ethic of mutual consent: whatever two (or more?) people agree to is right, no matter what others may think. Yet over the long term something that sounded initially like an advance in the progress of personal liberty would necessitate an expansive government infringing on other previously-protected, and arguably more central, liberties.

For example, does a woman have a right to end her pregnancy if she so desires? The US Supreme Court said yes in 1973 and reaffirmed this in 1992. By contrast, the Supreme Court of Canada refrained from asserting such a right in R. v. Morgentaler (1988), deliberately leaving room for Parliament to legislate new regulations on abortion that would conform to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

However, over the past quarter century many of our political leaders act as if there were such a right and that the debate over it has been settled. How else can one explain the attempt of Ontario’s Minister of Education two years ago to dictate to the province’s Catholic schools what they can and cannot teach with respect to abortion? Because abortion is a “right,” then the schools should not be teaching something that violates rights. Case closed.

Never mind that she had made no real argument, only an assertion. What is worse is that a government had put itself in the untenable position of telling a faith-based institution what must be the content of its own teachings, thus negating the Charter guarantee of religious freedom. If the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, it apparently does have a place in its schoolrooms, and perhaps even its churches, as the newer sexual freedom calls on an expansive government to protect it against those communities, now deemed oppressive, with stricter moral and behavioural standards.

Not unexpectedly, Trudeau’s son Justin, current leader of the federal Liberal Party, has inherited his father’s understanding of human rights and is using it against members of his own parliamentary caucus. In May he announced unilaterally that his party would not be accepting pro-lifers as candidates for Commons seats in the next election. Present caucus members who are pro-life will be tolerated – for now. But the handwriting is clearly on the wall: “We are steadfast in our belief . . . it is not for any government to legislate what a woman chooses to do with her body,” claimed the younger Trudeau, echoing his late father’s sentiments.

Once again, something touted as extending personal freedom is being advanced at the expense of real persons compelled to act in ways that violate their sense of right and wrong and perhaps even their recognition of reality itself. If some Liberal MPs persist in seeing clearly that abortion ends the life of an unborn child, they must be browbeaten into suppressing this knowledge for the sake of retaining their jobs over the long term.

Let us pray that these MPs will retain their integrity and do the right thing, even if, in the name of a spurious freedom, their right to live out their convictions increasingly goes unrecognized by our political leaders.


15 May 2014

Losing faith: Québec at the crossroads

What happens when a people loses faith in its gods?

Half a century ago the province of Québec underwent a sea change that saw a once Roman Catholic monolith become radically secularized in a breathtakingly brief period. Where once the ecclesiastical hierarchy had presided over, not only churches, but schools, universities, labour unions, hospitals and charities, many people in La Belle Province felt a need for liberation from what they had come to consider an oppressive institutional presence dominating so many facets of life.

This Révolution tranquille, or Quiet Revolution, coincided with the coming to office in 1960 of Jean Lesage’s Liberal government in Québec City. Lesage’s premiership promised to open up Québec society after a generation of Union Nationale rule under the recently deceased premier, Maurice Duplessis. Québec was on the move. While Montréal was preparing to host a world’s fair to celebrate Canada’s centenary, Quebeckers were trying to establish a new identity after the virtual collapse of the Catholic Church’s authority. Would they find their place within a renewed Confederation or would they go it alone?

While generations of Québécois had felt estranged from a spiritually apostate France after the 1789 Revolution, this antirevolutionary ethos vanished during the 1960s. The French Revolution had begun when Louis XVI had convoked the Estates General. Shortly thereafter, the Third Estate, consisting of commoners, rose up and abolished the first two estates, representing the clergy and nobility, declaring itself l’Assemblée nationale, that is, the National Assembly.

In 1968, in an eerie echo of the events of nearly two centuries earlier, Québec similarly abolished the upper chamber of its provincial legislature, le Conseil legislatif, while the lower chamber, l’Assemblée legislative, changed its name to – you guessed it – l’Assemblée nationale! The French Revolution had finally caught up with La Belle Province. That same year saw the formation of the Parti québécois, which sought a wholly French-speaking nation separate from Canada.

Much as the 1789 Revolution had seen France shift from a highly centralized absolute monarchy under the Bourbon kings to a series of highly centralized post-revolutionary régimes, so the Quiet Revolution saw Québec emerge out from under the weight of a monolithic church into the hands of an equally monolithic state, which replaced the old bishops in controlling schools, universities and hospitals. Gradually, faith-based schools, ostensibly protected by the Constitution Act, 1867, were phased out by both Liberal and PQ governments, while even private schools, such as Montréal’s Loyola High School, are being pressured to conform to an officially-mandated religious relativism, which holds that all religions are equally true – or, perhaps more accurately, equally false.

Finally, as if to cap off the process of secularization, the PQ government of Premier Pauline Marois had proposed a Charter of Québec Values, which would establish the supposed religious neutrality of the provincial government and ban the wearing of overt religious symbols for public employees. With the dissolution of the National Assembly, the Charter – numbered Bill 60 – died, although the new Liberal government of Philippe Couillard has unwisely decided to revive a diluted version in the new Assembly.

With the recent defeat of Marois’s PQ government, some observers, such as the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, are heralding the demise of separatism after nearly half a century. But this is almost certainly premature, as separatism’s death knell has been sounded many times before.

Yet even if separatism is in terminal decline, Québec’s enduring quest to establish a post-christian identity will not go away any time soon. The heart needs to believe something. When a society loses faith in the true God, a thousand idols will compete to replace it. For the past two generations, Quebeckers have looked to l’État du Québec – the Québec state – as their established church and nationalism as their new religion. But this faith will not ultimately satisfy.

St. Augustine famously addressed God with these words: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you!” At some point, Quebeckers may come to recognize the spiritual emptiness of a secularizing nationalism as they taste the sour fruit of an overgrown state trying to impose its values on society. Unlikely to return to the days of an overextended church institute, Quebeckers may one day nevertheless stand at a crossroads where they will be face to face with the God who revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ. Let us pray that they choose the right path.

David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College and is the author, most recently, of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (Pickwick Publications, 2014). This appeared in the 12 May issue of Christian Courier as part of his monthly “Principalities & Powers” column.


13 May 2014

Autonomy's Triumph in Canada: what George Parkin Grant foresaw

The late Canadian philosopher, George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), argued that, while the American experiment south of the border was preoccupied with the development of technique in the service of the expansive desires of sovereign individuals, both English and French Canadians were traditionally more communitarian in orientation. However, already half a century ago Grant lamented that Canada was becoming more individualistic and almost certainly for the worse. Although Grant initially expressed concern about the homogenizing influences of liberalism and capitalism on his country’s distinctive traditions, in his last decades he became increasingly worried about the easy acceptance of euthanasia and abortion in western societies and the inevitable cheapening of human life that would follow in its wake.

Unlike most of his socially-prominent extended family, including his nephew, former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, Grant was no fan of liberalism and held the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in particular disregard. Were he still alive today, Grant would be livid at what his nemesis’ son, the current Liberal leader, has unilaterally decreed to his parliamentary caucus: Anti-abortion candidates need not apply in 2015, Justin Trudeau says.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says all candidates running for nomination to represent the Liberal Party in 2015 will have to support the party’s pro-choice position, but that the same rule does not apply to sitting MPs. “I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills,” Trudeau said Wednesday following his party’s weekly caucus meeting in Ottawa. . . . “We are steadfast in our belief ... it is not for any government to legislate what a woman chooses to do with her body. And that is the bottom line.”

But the Liberals are not alone. Although Grant, as a Red Tory, tended to support the Conservative Party, he would scarcely be enthusiastic about what that party has become today under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who moved two years ago to shut down a backbencher’s effort to reopen the issue of when human life begins. Unlike the Liberals and the socialist New Democrats, the Conservative position seems to be to tolerate pro-lifers as long as they keep their mouths shut on the matter in the House of Commons. This means that all three major federal parties have effectively banished pro-lifers to the political wilderness. The autonomous person, liberated from the constraints of the past and free perhaps even from the stigma of social disapproval of his chosen lifestyle, has become the new god of the Canadian civil religion, almost totally eclipsing whatever communitarian elements have managed to survive the cultural shifts of recent decades.

The notion of freedom as the right to define ourselves autonomously was famously heralded by the US Supreme Court’s notorious Planned Parenthood vs Casey decision in 1992. But, as Grant feared so many decades ago, this notion has expanded north of the 49th parallel. If John Locke is right that “everyone is orthodox to himself,” then perhaps freedom as autonomy must be held to trump the claims, not only of institutional religions, but of any faith that recognizes that we answer to God and to the covenant community he has called into being. A Catholic like his late father, Justin Trudeau objects to anyone who might question that status based on his abortion stance. The use of such expressions as “a private matter” and “between God and me” suggests that his Catholicism, however sincere, has been considerably attenuated by Canada’s civil religion, which, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, will brook no dissent, particularly from those whose faith entails obedience to something beyond the socially-sanctioned quest for autonomy.

Grant would definitely not be pleased.


22 April 2014

Defying authority in obedience to authority: Milgram's experiment

Half a century ago, a junior faculty member at Yale University undertook a notorious experiment familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course. Stanley Milgram set up the experiment to find out the extent to which people will obey authority. This was motivated, in large measure, by the horrors that had taken place scarcely two decades earlier in Nazi-occupied Europe, where large numbers of otherwise decent people were caught up in an effort to eliminate entire categories of humanity.

In the experiment, two persons came into the laboratory. One of them, designated the “teacher,” believed he would be taking part in a study of learning and memory. The other person, designated the “learner,” was an actor privy to the real aim of the experiment. The learner was brought into a room, strapped into a chair, and attached to electrical wires. The teacher was put before the console of a formidable looking machine which, he was told, controlled the amount of electricity flowing through the wires into the body of the learner. The teacher was to ask questions of the learner, and each time the learner made an error, was instructed to administer successively higher doses of electricity to him.

In reality, of course, no shocks were ever given or received. The real test was to determine how far the subject/teacher would go in carrying out orders, even when hearing the agonizing cries of the victim/learner at the end of the wires. Would the subject break off the experiment, thereby defying authority, because he believed he was being commanded to do something wrong? Or would the subject, upon being assured by the white-coated experimenter that he assumed full responsibility, continue to administer “shocks” even up to the dangerous level of 450 volts?

Read the entire article here.


02 April 2014

The Niagara Psalter

I have now found a provisional title for my second psalter project: The Niagara Psalter. Read all about it here.


28 March 2014

Solzhenitsyn on Russia and Ukraine

The late novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn comes as close as anyone to being one of my heroes. In the midst of the darkest days of the Soviet regime, he stood fast for his convictions, explicitly rejecting Marxism-Leninism and embracing the Christian gospel. Yet he was also very much the Russian nationalist, which prompts me to wonder how, if he had lived a little longer, he would have responded to the recent crisis in Ukraine and Crimea, which came to a head earlier this month.

We cannot know this for certain, of course, but based on his writings, I rather think he would not have taken the side of the West in arguing for the inviolability of interstate boundaries. This is from his book, The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century:
Russia has truly fallen into a torn state: 24 million have found themselves “abroad” without moving anywhere, by staying on the lands of their fathers and grandfathers. Twenty-five million – the largest diaspora in the world by far; how dare we turn our back to it?? – especially since local nationalisms (which we have grown accustomed to view as quite understandable, forgivable, and “progressive”) are everywhere suppressing and maltreating our severed compatriots.

Along with this awareness of the ethnic Russian diaspora in the so-called Near Abroad, Solzhenitsyn had already expressly favored a political union of the three Slavic republics in his Rebuilding Russia. Ukrainians, he opined there, should not be forced into such a “Russian Union,” but separation of Ukraine from Russia, if it were to come to that, should be settled only on the local, rather than the republican, level. One assumes this would entail allowing those parts of Ukraine, including Crimea, that feel themselves to be more Russian than Western, to stay with the larger Russian Union, if they so desire, while permitting the more nationalistic oblasts in the west to go their own way.

Solzhenitsyn explicitly addresses the plight of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, calling attention to what he sees as their mistreatment at the hands of those who would proclaim: “Ukraine for the Ukrainians!”
A sizeable portion of the ethnic Ukrainian population itself does not even use or have command of the Ukrainian language. (The native language for 63 percent of the population is Russian, while ethnic Russians make up only 22 percent of the population; i.e., in Ukraine, for every Russian there are two “non-Russians” who nonetheless consider Russian to be their mother tongue!) (Russian Question, 91)

Add to this his reference to “the false Leninist borders of Ukraine (including even the Crimean dowry of the petty tyrant Khrushchov)” (90), and we can be reasonably confident that the famed Russian author would be squarely on the side of Vladimir Putin.

I am reluctant to conclude too quickly that Solzhenitsyn would be guilty of the sin to which his colleague Evgeny Barabanov pointed decades ago when he stated that “we shall be obliged to acknowledge that in Byzantium and Russia ideas about the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar too often merged and became interchangeable.” But Solzhenitsyn’s nationalism was his great blind spot.

The late Orthodox theologian, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, had wide-ranging discussions with the novelist in the mid-1970s and made some revealing observations on this encounter in his personal journals. Among other things Schmemann wrote of
Solzhenitsyn’s “idolizing obsession with Russia” (p. 65). “For [Solzhenitsyn] there is only Russia. For me, Russia could disappear, die, and nothing would change in my fundamental vision of the world. ‘The image of the world is passing.’ This tonality of Christianity is quite foreign to him” (p. 61).

While one can understand Solzhenitsyn’s concern for ethnic Russian minorities, his nationalism is off-putting. Changing interstate boundaries at the whim of the powerful, however strong the justification might be for territorial adjustments, is a recipe for the sort of irredentist bloodletting that marred the first half of the twentieth century, in which Solzhenitsyn himself was caught up.

Yet even our greatest heroes usually distinguish themselves in one area for which they properly earn recognition. Much as we do not look to the great scientists and inventors to produce great poetry or art, so we read Solzhenitsyn, not for his expertise in international relations, but for his considerable insight into the human condition and into a world that has largely forgotten its dependence on God.


27 March 2014

Sweetness and power: reflections on nationalism

Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism

Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism 
by Doug Gay. SCM Press, 2013. 192 pp.

Later this year, citizens of Scotland will vote in a referendum whether to continue their country's 300-year-old union with England or to go it alone. For author Doug Gay, the possibility of Scottish independence provides an occasion for reflecting on the larger issues surrounding nationalism. Is nationalism a good thing? Or is it, as many Christians have historically believed, an idolatrous overestimation of one's nation at the expense of other image-bearers of God elsewhere? Gay's project here is to defend nationalism based on his Reformed tradition of Christianity, an admittedly tall order, given nationalism's dark history.

The title comes from the Samson cycle of stories in the biblical book of Judges, in which the flawed Israelite hero scoops honey from the carcass of a lion he has earlier killed (Judges 14:5-9), and from the Tate & Lyle syrup cans familiar to Scottish households from the late nineteenth century. "The relationship between lions and honey I read (freely) as a metaphor for the central question of political theology and political ethics—the relationship between power and virtue." Although nationalism has indeed led to grave injustices and oppressive polities, it need not do so. Accordingly, Gay undertakes to defend a modest and "sweet" vision of nationalism that is more compatible with the Christian faith than, say, the version in Quebec, which aims to snuff faith from the public square.

Gay defines nationalism as "the making of combined claims, on behalf of a population, to identity, to jurisdiction and to territory." His use of the word claim is significant in that it points to the need to weigh and assess something, particularly against contrary claims in a public forum. What I read him to say here is that there is nothing automatically right and salutary in Scottish independence. Whether or not Scotland should be a sovereign nation-state is ultimately a prudential judgement about whether justice for its people would be better served in a United Kingdom or in a separate country. After weighing the relevant factors, he believes a separate Scotland is a defensible goal for the serious Christian.

Read the entire review here.


26 March 2014

We Answer to Another: latest news

My fellow Canadians may be interested to know that my book is now posted on, although actual copies are not yet in stock. Be patient.


The Court has spoken: the Nadon decision

The Supreme Court of Canada has handed the Harper government a setback over his attempt to have Marc Nadon appointed to that same court: Supreme Court says non to Nadon; federal government 'genuinely surprised'.

By rejecting Justice Marc Nadon, Harper's sixth and most recent pick for the nine-member bench, the remaining Supremes laid down constitutional markers that could proscribe the government's future plans for Senate reform, electoral changes and the appointment of judges.

Not only was Nadon, a semi-retired Federal Court of Appeal justice, found to not have the proper qualifications laid out in the Supreme Court Act for a Quebec nominee to the top bench, but the government's efforts to rewrite the rules were thwarted.

The government does not have the authority to amend the Act, wrote six of seven judges, saying "the unanimous consent of Parliament and all provincial legislatures is required for amendments to the Constitution relating to the 'composition of the Supreme Court.'"

Unlike its American counterpart, the Constitution Act, 1867, originally titled the British North America Act, did not establish a supreme court for Canada. Section 101 of that act went only so far as to authorize the federal government to establish a "General Court of Appeal for Canada." Even when a Supreme Court was established eight years later, it was not technically supreme at all, since it was still possible to appeal its decisions to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, in effect the highest court of appeal in the British Empire. It became supreme in reality only in 1949, when all appeals to the JCPC were abolished, under the authority granted to Parliament by the Statute of Westminster of 1931. Even then the last JCPC decision relevant to Canada was handed down as late as 1959, because the appeal at issue was initiated more than ten years earlier.

Andrew Coyne believes the Nadon decision was a bad one based on a strained reading of the Supreme Court Act, which requires that three of the nine justices be appointed from the bar of Québec, because of that province's unique civil code which is based on the Roman law rather than the English common law. I will not comment on that particular angle, as I am more interested in what the court's decision does to the Supreme Court Act itself. According to the text of the decision:

The Supreme Court Act was enacted in 1875 as an ordinary statute under the authority of s. 101 of the Constitution Act, 1867 (S.C. 1875, c.11). However, as we explain below, Parliament’s authority to amend the Act is now limited by the Constitution. Sections 5 and 6 of the Supreme Court Act reflect an essential feature of the Supreme Court of Canada — its composition — which is constitutionally protected under Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Canada's constitution is not embodied in a single document, as in the United States. In general, there can be said to be four sources of our constitution. First and most obvious are our Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982, which are entrenched documents protected by more than one amending formula necessitating a qualified majority or, in some cases, unanimity to change. Second are so-called organic statutes, ordinary acts of Parliament whose subject matter is of a constitutional nature. These would include the Supreme Court Act, the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Canada Elections Act. The third source can be found in court decisions made under these acts, and the fourth in the unwritten conventions crucial to the functioning of parliamentary government in a Westminster-style political system.

As mentioned above, the Constitution Act, 1982, makes provision for amending our Constitution Acts. In general, amendment requires the approval of both chambers of Parliament and the provincial legislatures of at least seven provinces containing at least 50 percent of Canada's population. However, some matters, including "the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada" (41[d]), require unanimous approval by the two federal parliamentary chambers and all ten provincial legislatures.

Not knowing the history of judicial interpretation of this section, I cannot say whether this current reference decision represents something new, but what stands out for me is that it appears to elevate the Supreme Court Act to the status of an entrenched constitution act rather than a mere organic statute on a par with other statutes. On the other hand, if the unanimity requirement applies only to "the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada," then perhaps only that part of the Supreme Court Act that touches on that issue can be said to have entrenched status.

Better legal minds than mine may already have weighed in on this issue. I've not researched it myself, and I probably will not be doing so in the near future, but I thought I would at least raise it here to see what sort of response, if any, it might elicit.


24 March 2014

Interview posted

On his Accidental Blog, Steve Bishop has posted an interview he conducted with me on the occasion of the publication of my new book. Here's an excerpt:

So, why should we read it?

Because it treats a phenomenon that is absolutely central to human life in God's world. Even when we think we are evading authority, we really do nothing of the sort. Each chapter begins with a story relevant to its subject matter. The introductory chapter starts with a day in the life of Michael, a university undergraduate who is engaged in all of the typical activities of the student. I've read this story to classrooms and audiences and asked them to describe each encounter Michael has with some manifestation of authority. It quickly becomes apparent that authority is ubiquitous. It is apparent at every turn, for example, in the calendar that governs his life, the professor's teaching authority and even in his own authority as student.

In our contemporary society, it is almost automatically assumed, primarily under Immanuel Kant's influence, that the mature adult must attain moral autonomy and question critically every directive that authority makes. When I was much younger, I think I would have found this a persuasive position, especially in the wake of the civil rights revolution, the Vietnam War and, of course, Watergate. Yet in the real world this is impossible. It is impossible to question authority in general. If we see fit to question specific manifestations of authority – as indeed we must – then we necessarily do so based on some other authority which we accord priority. This is what the apostles did in the book of Acts when they claimed to be obeying God rather than mere human beings (e.g., Acts 5:27-29).

Sometimes I'll ask my students who they think has authority in the classroom. Invariably they will point to me. Yes, I tell them, but I'm not the only one; you have authority too! Not the same authority, but authority no less. Everyone has an authoritative office within the classroom. Koyzis has the office of professor, while those responding to my question possess the office of student. Each office bears authority and is worthy of respect accordingly.


23 March 2014

Too much democracy?

A century ago, during the Progressive Era in the United States, would-be reformers went about trying to democratize more thoroughly an already democratic political system. In 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution provided for direct election of Senators, who had previously been appointed by the several state legislatures. Even the method of selecting a presidential candidate was reformed to bring more popular participation to the nomination process.

In 1933 one-time presidential aspirant Al Smith observed that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. But might it be possible to over-democratize a political system to its detriment?

Here in Canada our head of state inherits her office. The Queen has been an exemplary public servant during her lengthy reign, but no one can pretend she was chosen according to the merit principle or by popular acclamation. Our Senate is similarly filled by appointment, despite abortive efforts at reforming the upper chamber of Parliament. Yet we too were influenced by Progressive Era reforms of a hundred years ago.

Prior to 1919 a party leader in the House of Commons was chosen by the party’s parliamentary caucus. However, that year saw the death of long-time Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier just prior to the beginning of a convention to restore unity to a fragmented party after the divisive conscription crisis of 1917. Because delegates from across Canada were already scheduled to meet later that year, Laurier’s unexpected passing provided an opportunity to hold an American-style leader selection convention, which chose William Lyon Mackenzie King as his successor. The opposition Conservatives followed suit a few years later.

Since then the selection of party leaders has been even more thoroughly democratized, with ordinary party members and supporters playing an increasing role in the process. This is a good thing, right?

Well, perhaps not. In 1990, after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher foolishly imposed a poll tax in Scotland, where she was least popular, her Conservative caucus were able to unseat her precisely because they had put her there in the first place. When she was no longer able to govern effectively, it was a simple matter to remove her and replace her with someone else. Even Tony Blair had to fend off revolts in his own Labour Party back benches.

By contrast, here in Canada such revolts are almost impossible to carry off, thereby preventing a potentially effective check on the Prime Minister’s insufficiently accountable power. In their award-winning book, Democratizing the Constitution, authors Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull point out that making the party’s leader dependent on its rank and file has inadvertently strengthened the hand of that leader over his own parliamentary caucus. Because the party faithful are too diffuse a body to exercise effective control over their leader and because the parliamentary caucus cannot go against the rank and file, the leader’s – and, if the party forms the government, Prime Minister’s – position is enhanced within the system as a whole. The former Canadian Alliance discovered this problem just over a decade ago when their leader, Stockwell Day, proved unable to command the loyalty of his party caucus despite having won the support of the grassroots.

Philosopher Yves R. Simon once wrote that, for a democracy to function properly, it needs healthy nondemocratic institutions. Indeed there is a small but growing movement south of the border to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment to restore what they see as the integrity of the American federal system against an overly intrusive central government in Washington. In fact, for much of the past two and a half millennia in the west, the most thoughtful political philosophers favoured something they called a mixed constitution – one that would combine the best features of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy in a single composite constitutional framework.

Here in Canada it may be that we have the worst features of monarchy in its pure form. The office at issue, however, is not that of the Queen, but of her Prime Minister, whom Parliament, under most circumstances, seems incapable of reining in. Perhaps it’s time to reverse the reform of 1919 and allow the party’s parliamentary caucus to choose its leader. Yes, it may sound undemocratic, but over the long term it may serve to make the Prime Minister more accountable and to restore a badly-needed balance to our own otherwise resilient constitutional framework.

David Koyzis is the author, most recently, of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. This appeared as his monthly "Principalities and Powers" column in Canadian periodical Christian Courier.


19 March 2014

Book now available: We Answer to Another

My new book is finally out. We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God is now available from Pickwick Publications. It is also available from, although it is listed as temporarily out of stock, undoubtedly because they have not yet received copies of the book. Thus far it is not listed on, but I will let Canadian readers know when it appears there. In the meantime, your best bet would be to phone the publisher at 541-344-1528 or email them at orders[at]wipfandstock[dot]com.

Here is the description of the book from the back cover:

The quest to escape authority has been a persistent feature of the modern world, animating liberals and Marxists, Westerners and non-Westerners alike. Yet what if it turns out that authority is intrinsic to humanity? What if authority is characteristic of everything we are and do as those created in God's image, even when we claim to be free of it? What if kings and commoners, teachers and students, employers and employees all possess authority?

This book argues that authority cannot be identified with mere power, is not to be played off against freedom, and is not a mere social construction. Rather it is resident in an office given us by God himself at creation. This central office is in turn dispersed into a variety of offices relevant to our different life activities in a wide array of communal settings. Far from being a conservative bromide, the call to respect authority is foundational to respect for humanity itself.

Here are endorsements:

"In this timely and highly valuable book, Koyzis exposes the problems and points the way to solid, balanced answers. The subtitle of We Answer to Another sums it up: 'Authority, Office, and the Image of God.' Humans have been created in the image of God and called to serve the Creator—the One to whom we are ultimately accountable. To exercise a responsibility is to hold an office of real authority as servant-stewards of one another. We can thus participate in holding one another accountable to the responsibilities of those offices. Sound old-fashioned? It's the most contemporary word of wisdom we and our neighbors throughout the world need to hear today!"
—James W. Skillen, President Emeritus, Center for Public Justice

"Liberal societies, regarding themselves as premised on the generative moral autonomy of the individual, have a constitutive problem with authority—freedom needs no justification, only authority. In this highly illuminating, wide-ranging, and exceptionally clear book, David Koyzis shows how this view not only destabilizes authority but actually diminishes our humanity. Authority is not autonomy but 'responsible agency,' exercised individually and corporately in many diverse human settings—'offices'—that arise from our being created in God's image. Recovering authority as 'answering to another' makes us more, not less, human."
—Jonathan Chaplin, Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge


06 March 2014

Emotion and evangelicalism: knowing and loving

To be an evangelical is to profess that one’s highest allegiance is to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to confess that salvation is in Christ alone and that we do not save ourselves, no matter how good we may be. It is to recognize that God’s grace is freely given and that we can do nothing, not even deciding to follow Jesus, to merit it. That is evangelicalism at its best.

All the same, there are many elements of the North American evangelical movement with which I find it difficult to identify. I am not keen on some of the subcultural distinctives, including the celebrity culture associated with the television preachers and Christian contemporary music. If the gospel becomes a marketable commodity, Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him, and even to suffer the consequences of so doing, loses its urgency and may be ignored altogether. No longer does the gospel shape our lives from the ground up and in their totality; it becomes a mere add-on to whatever lifestyle choices happen to appeal to us at the moment.

Many evangelical leaders are bemoaning what they see as the loss of Christian commitment in the millennial generation. But what if millennials are slackening in their church attendance and other markers of observance because they simply are not being challenged to take up their cross? Rod Dreher has posted something worth reading for those concerned for the future of the church. Dreher believes emotivism is at fault:

This dumbed-down emotivism is the way many, many churches — not just Evangelical churches — present the faith to its young people. It’s that “Jesus is my best friend” stuff that adults think will make the faith more palatable to young people, but which just sets them up for collapse when they step outside the bubble of church culture and find pushback. Specifically . . . if emotions are the foundation on which you build your faith, what happens when your emotions don’t line up with the teachings of your church? We Orthodox, Catholics, and Reformed Christians can look down our noses all we like at charismatics and Evangelicals for not having a strong and systematic theology, but what good does our theological depth do us if we don’t teach our young people how to think as Christians, and how to discipline their feelings with reason?

Dreher is quick to emphasize that he is not advocating a rationalism incapable of speaking to the heart. Nevertheless, an evangelicalism detached from solid confessional moorings and incapable of teaching its young people to think christianly about larger cultural trends will not survive over the long term. In short, it’s a matter of teaching truth, not just eliciting feelings.

To be sure, feelings cannot be ignored. I rather like Corey’s comment on Dreher’s post: “Yes, deeper theological and historical teaching might slow the Millennial egress, but, to speak like Augustine, the truth must be loved if the truth will be believed.” If love is not reducible to mere emotion, there is nevertheless a substantial emotional component to it. Where the emotional side is missing, love becomes pro forma, incapable of eliciting anything deeper than intellectual agreement. Similarly, if truth is a matter of head knowledge only, it will not carry the day, no matter how many reasons are adduced in its favour.

I think G. K. Chesterton is on to something in speaking of the romance of orthodoxy. Romance is something winsome, attractive and capable of drawing people into a narrative in which they come to see themselves playing a part. If sound teaching is viewed only as so many discrete dogmas to be imposed on the otherwise critical mind, it will fall flat. If, on the other hand, we affirm, with Lesslie Newbigin, that, as Christians, we indwell the biblical story, recognizing that the truths it conveys are really a single Truth, our highest love, demanding, not just intellectual assent, but heartfelt commitment, we might just be able to pass on something of inestimable worth to the next generation. If so, this will amount to evangelicalism at its very best.