31 December 2012

Giving up on the Constitution?

For many years now I've been teaching my students that a constitution is more than a scrap of paper but is to be found in the deeper principles and commitments of a particular political community. Here in Canada in recent decades we have embraced the notion that our constitution is identical to our codified Constitution Acts, while traditionally we have recognized other sources of our constitution, including organic statues (i.e., ordinary laws whose subject matter is constitutional), court rulings (including those of London's Judicial Committee of the Privy Council prior to 1949), and, above all, the unwritten conventions of the constitution, such as responsible government.

Superficially, Louis Michael Seidman would appear to agree with this understanding of a constitution, desiring to import it into his American context:
Countries like Britain and New Zealand have systems of parliamentary supremacy and no written constitution, but are held together by longstanding traditions, accepted modes of procedure and engaged citizens. We, too, could draw on these resources.

However, Seidman goes much further: Let’s Give Up on the Constitution. Why? Because it's been ignored numerous times in the past and, as an 18th-century document, it is no longer suited to the 21st-century United States.
What has preserved our political stability is not a poetic piece of parchment, but entrenched institutions and habits of thought and, most important, the sense that we are one nation and must work out our differences. No one can predict in detail what our system of government would look like if we freed ourselves from the shackles of constitutional obligation, and I harbor no illusions that any of this will happen soon. But even if we can’t kick our constitutional-law addiction, we can soften the habit.

Yet what if it turns out that the most central of these "entrenched institutions and habits of thought" is the respect that Americans hold for the very document he wishes to abandon? No one is asking Seidman or anyone else to believe that its origin is divine, but one would be foolish to give up on something as crucial as the general reverence for the rule of law, which can hardly be taken for granted in much of the world outside of the west. Seidman is, of course, welcome to work for changing the law, but it seems incomprehensible that a constitutional law professor would be so ready to relinquish, not just an old document, but that intangible and durable consensus undergirding its status — and indeed his own profession.

22 December 2012

The two lives of the Virgin Mary

Here is my most recent "Principalities & Powers" column from Christian Courier, dated 10 December 2012. It is cross-posted with my Genevan Psalter blog.

Jesus’ mother Mary can be said to have had two lives: the one recounted with tantalizing brevity in the Scriptures and the one bequeathed to her in subsequent centuries by the church, which made her an object of veneration. Mary, of course, plays a prominent role in the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke and at the beginning of Acts.

Luke 1 recounts the visit by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth, announcing that she would give birth to the promised Messiah, the one who would save his people from their sins. Although we are told that she at first questioned how this could be, given her virginity, and that, in response to Gabriel’s explanation, she said: “let it be to me according to your word,” we are not told much else.

This is where Mary’s “second life” comes in, with later writers embroidering the biblical account with their own additions. For example, the second-century Protevangelion of James tells us that her parents were named Joachim and Anna (or Hannah in Hebrew). Lamenting her barrenness, Anna promises that, if God will grant her a child, she will dedicate him or her to the Lord’s service in the Jerusalem temple. An angel appears to Anna and informs her that her prayers have been heard and that she will indeed bring forth a child. In a plot twist similar to that of the Old Testament story of Hannah and the child Samuel, once her daughter Mary is born and attains the age of three, Anna entrusts her to the priests at the temple.

When Mary hits puberty, the priests decide to marry her to an elderly widower named Joseph, who has children by a previous marriage. When she is sixteen years of age, she is found to be pregnant. The author of the Protevangelion then recounts an entirely plausible scenario in which Mary and Joseph are condemned for having secretly married without the assent of the larger community. The priests subject the distraught couple to trial by ordeal, making them drink a concoction that will harm them if guilty but will not harm them if innocent. They survive the ordeal, and the plot continues with the birth of Jesus at Bethelehem.

It is, of course, difficult to determine where these extrabiblical stories came from or how they developed. It is possible that Mary’s parents were really named Joachim and Anna. Or it could be that, given the obvious literary dependence of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) on the much earlier song of Samuel’s mother Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, a tradition began that Mary’s mother was also named Hannah.

In any event, Mary’s status became the subject of the Christological disputes of later centuries. In AD 431 the First Council of Ephesus declared Mary Theotokos (Θεοτόκος), or God-bearer, commonly rendered in English as the Mother of God. This was less a statement about Mary than an affirmation that her Son Jesus was fully God and fully man.

Indeed, in Orthodox iconography Mary is rarely portrayed without her Son, who is shown in her arms, seated on her lap or even inside a stylized circular womb, fully clothed and his head wrapped in the traditional gold halo.

The sixteenth-century Reformers continued to esteem Mary. Ulrich Zwingli, who reformed the church in Zürich, even retained the first part of the Ave Maria in his initial liturgy: “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Recognizing its scriptural origins (Luke 1:28, 42), Zwingli argued that “the Ave Maria is not a prayer but a greeting and commendation.”

Reformed Christians do not request Mary’s intercessions before God, primarily because Scripture is deafeningly silent on the matter. However, all Christians of whatever tradition do well to emulate Mary in her ready acceptance of God’s will for her life, despite hardships incurred, and in her jubilant expression of praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!”

19 December 2012

South Asian facts

If Pakistan and Bangladesh had not gone their separate ways four decades ago, Pakistan would be the third most populous country in the world today. As it is, however, Pakistan is the 6th largest country and Bangladesh the 8th. Furthermore, if India and Pakistan had not gone their separate ways six and a half decades ago, India would be the most populous country in the world, outranking China by nearly 200 million, which amounts to a population of six countries the size of Canada.

05 December 2012

Not quite so simple: reforming royal succession

News of the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy has brought the royal succession issue to the forefront. The CBC reports: Royal succession laws set to be changed.
Last year, leaders of Britain and the 15 former colonies that have the queen as their head of state informally agreed to establish new rules giving female children equal status with males in the order of succession — something that will require legal changes in each country.

"Put simply, if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our queen," Prime Minister David Cameron said at the time.
Canada is, of course, one of the 16 Commonwealth realms that recognize the Queen as head of state. In order for a change in the succession to the Crown to be successful, more than the agreement of the heads of government is needed. Each realm must enact the relevant statutes to make this possible, and this requires parliamentary approval. In Canada's case it would seem to require an amendment to our Constitution Acts under sections 41 and 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982. Such an amendment would require the assent of both chambers of Parliament and all ten provincial legislatures. Past efforts at formal constitutional change, most notably the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, illustrate that such unanimity is not easily procured. We could conceivably end up with a king while our fellow Commonwealth realms go with a new queen.

Of course, in the second decade of the 21st century the notion of equality of opportunity for men and women is fairly securely established in our political culture, so it might not be that difficult to carry off. All the same, the larger issue of nondiscrimination will have been only partially settled by the requisite legal and constitutional changes. Sex discrimination, yes. But obviously not age discrimination. Hereditary monarchy is intrinsically discriminatory against younger siblings. If this form of discrimination were ever to be addressed, it would seem to make the monarchy itself untenable. Because only one person can occupy a single office, the process of determining who will fill it necessarily discriminates against those ineligible for it on a variety of grounds. The elimination of sex (or gender) as a criterion for succession is a reform whose time has undoubtedly come, although it is not obvious to some of us that it is any less fair to favour males over females than it is to favour the eldest over younger siblings.

03 December 2012

Don't diss the Swiss: downsizing the US presidency


Last week I posted my Capital Commentary piece, Winner Take All or Splitting the Difference: Lessons from Switzerland. Now someone has brought this article to my attention: Who Needs a President?, by Bill Kaufmann. If only the New Jersey Plan had won out over two centuries ago:

No matter which hollow man occupies the bunker at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the evidence from 225 years points to an inescapable conclusion: the Founders erred horribly in creating the presidency. To invest in one man quasi-kingly powers over the 13 states then, 300 million people and half a continent today, is madness. And it didn’t have to be this way.

Many Anti-Federalists proposed, as an alternative to what they called the “president-general,” either a plural executive—two or more men sharing the office, a recipe for what a sage once called a wise and masterly inactivity—or they wanted no executive at all. Federal affairs would be so limited in scope that they could be performed competently and without aggrandizement by a unicameral legislature—that is, one house of Congress—as well as various administrative departments and perhaps a federal judiciary.

The New Jersey Plan, fathered by William Paterson of the Springsteen State, was the small-f federal option at the Constitutional Convention. It is the great decentralist what-might-have-been. The New Jersey Plan provided for a unicameral Congress with an equal vote for each state, and copresidents chosen by Congress for a single fixed term and removable by Congress if so directed by a majority of state governors.

This would have saved us from the cult of the presidency, the imperial presidency, the president as the world’s celebrity-in-chief—the whole gargantuan mess.

Obviously one cannot reverse history, but one wonders whether it might be possible even now to recognize the key anti-federalist insights and to implement reforms that might curtail the powers of an imperial presidency.

30 November 2012

Winner Take All or Splitting the Difference: Lessons from Switzerland

Another protracted presidential election cycle has come and gone, with Americans on one side of the political aisle celebrating victory, and those on the other licking their wounds in dismay. Two months ago in this space I asked whether the United States is becoming the next France, whose politics was long characterized by sharp division between partisans and opponents of the 1789 Revolution. The end of the recent election campaign will not diminish and may only exacerbate these tendencies.
What would the U.S. look like if it had no president? What if we were spared the quadrennial hoopla that has Americans investing so much of their energies in putting one person into a single political office at such huge expense? It might look something like Switzerland.

15 November 2012

Disallowing Debate, Dictating Dogma

Here is my second post on First Thoughts: Disallowing Debate, Dictating Dogma, which is a slightly altered version of my monthly Principalities & Powers column for Christian Courier.

12 November 2012

First Thoughts: a promotion . . . of sorts

Three years ago I was invited to blog for the First Things blog, Evangel, which I have done since that time until now. Webmaster Joe Carter has now closed the Evangel blog, while keeping its archived contents online. Recently, at Carter's invitation, I have begun blogging at First Thoughts, which might be said to represent a promotion of sorts. Check out my inaugural post: Democracy ― as others see it.

30 October 2012

In appreciation: Edward Goerner

Some of Edward Goerner's students, including yours truly, have signed onto an expression of appreciation published in Notre Dame Magazine: In Appreciation: Edward Goerner (1929-2012). This brings back many wonderful memories of my time at Notre Dame in the 1980s. Only now do I see how much my own paedagogical manner and even sense of style were influenced by his.

Goerner’s undergraduate political theory course made him something of a legend on campus. It is perhaps impossible to know when he established the contours of his remarkable class, but it soon became finely tuned. Students read Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rousseau’s Social Contract and Plato’s Republic in that order. On Fridays, teaching assistants would lead students in conversations about case studies that Goerner had devised and refined over the years. These required students and teaching assistants alike to apply what they had learned.

Goerner’s introductory course may have been conducted for undergraduates, but graduate students were perhaps even more its beneficiaries. Comprehensive examinations seemed somehow possible after listening to Goerner dissect three of the greatest texts in the history of political thought. As he awoke in undergraduates the excitement of political theory, he allowed graduate students to glimpse what it meant to master a text — to understand the author’s goals, the era in which it had been written, and to shed accumulated interpretations to confront the text and its philosophical import directly.

If serving as a teaching assistant for Goerner’s introductory class was integral to the preparations and training of so many political theory graduate students, it was also so much more. Mostly, it was an opportunity to see a master at his craft. In appearance and demeanor, Goerner was always orderly, gracious and eloquent with more than a hint of the aristocrat. He dressed impeccably in tweed suits, usually with an ascot. His voice retained the Brooklyn accent of his youth. His manner was all Notre Dame but also part Oxford. Those who judged from his appearance that he was aloof were sorely mistaken. He laughed easily and robustly, had a streak of rascality in him and was open to any idea from any quarter that merited consideration. . . .

A storyteller with a keen sense of history, a vast knowledge of comparative systems and cultures, and a deep, resonant voice, Goerner developed lectures that tugged at the minds and souls of his students. In them, historical detail danced in service of theoretical insight, fact informed value, theater conspired with philosophy. He embodied the intellectual and ethical virtues that he taught, a Christian who lived a life in service of others.

26 October 2012

The dabblers' intolerance

A fairly predictable Huffington Post publishes an equally predictable opinion piece by Marilyn Sewell, titled Saying Goodbye to Tolerance. It seems Sewell has had a change of heart, as she recounts below:
I am a Unitarian Universalist, and we consider ourselves the most tolerant of faiths. In the 19th century Universalist churches were known for opening their doors to dissenters of all varieties, and our modern-day UU churches have continued to provide space for those who cannot find a welcome mat elsewhere: atheists and agnostics, religious humanists, political dissidents. We UUs see ourselves as "broadminded," and so tend to say things like, "There is truth in every religious tradition. We respect all religious beliefs." In one of our services, you might hear a reading from the Bible, but just as likely from the Quran, Black Elk, Lao-tse or Starhawk. However, in spite of our long history and tradition of tolerance, I am finding myself increasingly intolerant -- specifically, of the theology and practice of many evangelical Christians.

Mind you, Sewell has not come to a particularly startling conclusion. It's all been said before — many times, in fact. Yet it does underscore, once again, the inevitable divide between a religion that recognizes an authority outside of our own individual wills and one that affirms a vague spirituality eclectically embracing, well, whatever happens to appeal to us at the moment. As it turns out, an eclectic spirituality, indiscriminately drawing on a diversity of incompatible traditions, cannot tolerate a genuine religion claiming that God has revealed himself in specific ways to specific communities. The central issue is precisely one of authority. Do we accept an authority transcending our contemporary ethos and cultural prejudices, or are we in effect the authors of our own spirituality, borrowing what we approve and rejecting what we do not approve within these competing authorities?

It is fashionable these days to claim to be spiritual but not religious. And why not? The dictionary tells us that the word religion stems from two Latin roots re + ligare, the latter of which means to bind, to tie up. To be religious means to bind oneself to a particular body of beliefs of which one is not the author. It means to accept that one is personally bound to a way of life and faith to which one submits or, more scandalously, to which one has been committed by others, most notably by one's parents or sponsors at baptism.

This binding character of religion is difficult for our contemporaries to make sense of, given the modern predilection for attaching personal obligations to the voluntary principle and the concomitant suspicion of all duties we have not freely assumed. We would prefer to go up to the spiritual smorgasbord, sampling a little of "the Quran, Black Elk, Lao-tse or Starhawk" without actually becoming a committed Muslim, Native Spiritist, Taoist or earth goddess worshipper. Many of us like to dabble in exotic spiritualities without having to identify with any one of them.

Sewell in no way breaks new ground with her newly discovered penchant for intolerance. Dabblers are compelled by their very dabbling to disdain those who will not dabble and who persist in believing the truth claims of one particular religion. Believing Christians, for example, read the Bible, not as one source of wisdom amongst many others, but as a single story of creation, fall, redemption and ultimate consummation in Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God. Taken on its own terms, this biblical story makes a claim on our lives that we dare not relativize for the sake of conforming to the contemporary canons of tolerance. Such purveyors of "tolerance" as Sewell are actually in the grip of an alternate redemptive narrative whose claims are just as exclusive as those of biblical Christianity and whose tiny communities are even more parochial.

Nevertheless, eclectic spirituality ultimately fails to satisfy, precisely because we are not autonomous. We inevitably submit ourselves to some authority because this is what we are created to do. If it is not to the God who has saved us through Jesus Christ, it will be to some other god of our own devising. Yet because this god is as fickle as our own protean personal preferences, it will not ultimately bring the rest that our restless hearts crave.

12 October 2012

Pro-life = misogyny?

This story has been picked up by pro-life and Roman Catholic publications but has been largely ignored by the mainstream media here in Ontario: Ontario Official: Catholic Schools Can’t Teach “Misogynistic” Pro-life.
The Education Minister of Ontario, Canada — a professing Catholic who sends her children to Catholic schools — declared October 10 that the province’s publicly funded Catholic schools may not teach students that abortion is wrong because such teaching amounts to “misogyny,” which is prohibited in schools under a controversial anti-bullying law. “Taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be considered one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take,” Laurel Broten said during a press conference. “Bill 13,” she asserted, “is about tackling misogyny.”

Three comments are in order. First, a provincial education minister lacks the authority to dictate to a church organization what its teachings should be. That authority belongs to the ecclesiastical office-holders themselves. Given that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly claims to guarantee "freedom of conscience and religion," a government official is duty bound to refrain from interfering in such matters.

Second, if one has to resort to name-calling in setting forth one's position, it amounts to a tacit admission that one's arguments in its favour are weak and not easily defended in open debate. Broten again: "That debate [over a woman's right to choose] is over, it has ended and it should stay that way." That may indeed be her view of the matter, but simply pronouncing a subject closed does not necessarily make it so. Campaign Life Coalition and ProWomanProLife among many others would definitely disagree with her assessment.

Third, and perhaps most basically, Broten seems to be defining a woman's identity as a mere assertion of autonomy, that is, the right to choose apart from any "thick" conception of the human person obviously dependent on norms not of our own making. If a woman wishes to harm her own body or the foetal life growing within her, it is her decision to make, whatever its impact on herself, her loved ones and the larger social fabric. Broten is, of course, entitled to her viewpoint, but why she feels entitled to impose it as unquestioned dogma on everyone else is far from clear.

05 October 2012

Edward A. Goerner (1929-2012)


Edward Alfred Goerner was longtime professor of Government and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and I was privileged to have him as my PhD supervisor more than 25 years ago.

The first thing one noticed about Goerner was his flair for the dramatic in both mannerism and dress. He was born in Brooklyn, but his speech was closer to the now fading Mid-Atlantic English once associated with Hollywood and the New York stage. Many Domers will recall seeing him regularly walking from his home just south of campus to his office or to Sacred Heart Church, wearing a cape rather than the usual overcoat. When he read the scripture lesson in the liturgy with his distinctive resonating voice, he brought something of the Shakespearean theatre to the task at hand.

Goerner was the consummate undergraduate teacher, whose dynamic paedagogy had an inevitable impact on my own. He began each class session with the same prayer: "Send us, O Lord, your Holy Spirit, among whose gifts are wisdom and understanding." He would then proceed to lecture on the finer points of mediaeval political theory or on the three books he would assign to his introductory undergraduate students: Hobbes' Leviathan, Rousseau's Social Contract and Plato's Republic. I owe my own respect for these classic texts to his teaching, and I have tried in some fashion to pass this respect along to my own students.

Goerner did not publish as prolifically as some of his colleagues. His written works included Peter and Caesar and two edited volumes. There was also his two-part essay in Political Theory weighing whether Thomas Aquinas' was a natural virtue or natural law thinker. (My own sense is that he was both, but that's something for another post.) Yet he had a considerable influence on the people he taught, myself included. I have my own students reading primary sources in political theory, as did Goerner, reflecting his obvious debt to the late Leo Strauss, under whom he had studied at the University of Chicago.

Although I cannot say that I was personally close to him, I found him most encouraging of my academic interests, especially the comparison of Roman Catholic social and political teachings with their Kuyperian Calvinist counterparts, a subject that found its way into the final chapters of my own Political Visions and Illusions. I had not seen him in over two decades, but I would occasionally hear from him in the intervening years. A few years ago he wrote to recommend Rémi Brague's The Law of God, which I promptly purchased and read, agreeing with his assessment of its significance. Most recently he had written me after seeing my name on this document, which had been spearheaded by one of my former Redeemer students.

I was further privileged to pass along to him another of my former students, whose dissertation on John Rawls he would supervise. We thus managed to share in the education of a future Christian scholar in political science.

May Edward Alfred Goerner rest in peace until the resurrection.

French-style Polarization in the U.S.?

Is America becoming the next France? Is our political system becoming as polarized as that of the French Third and Fourth Republics?

According to the late British political scientist, Sir Bernard Crick, politics is the art of conciliating diversity peacefully in a given unit of rule. Some political systems have done this better than others. The U.S. is among the more successful in enabling people of varying interests and viewpoints to get along within a common constitutional framework commanding near universal loyalty.

Until recently the political parties themselves played a role similar to that of the system as a whole. Yes, Democrats and Republicans were opponents, but each party was a broad-based coalition of citizens with a variety of commonalities—some economic, and some ideological, regional and religious in character. Progressives and conservatives found a place in both parties, coexisting willingly, if not always enthusiastically. Southerners tended to vote Democratic, while northerners voted Republican. Different Christian denominations were at home in each party as well: Catholics and Southern Baptists supported the Democrats, and northern mainline and evangelical Protestants the Republicans.

Read more here.

24 September 2012

Canada and America: Fuzzy Origins or Founding Myth?

It is not surprising then that Canadians are more accustomed than Americans to thinking of their allegiances as multiple and layered. That most Québécois are loyal to Québec first and Canada second does not bother most of us. That some older English-speaking Canadians still stubbornly fly the Union Jack is never taken as a sign of disloyalty to Canada. Quite the contrary. We Canadians love our country but recognize that it has no exclusive claim on our affections or even on our resilient political institutions, which we share in large measure with other Commonwealth realms.
Read more here.

10 September 2012

A polarized election

This is my latest column in Christian Courier, published 10 September. Please subscribe today.



Once upon a time in a land to the south of us, the Democratic and Republican Parties were big-tent organizations, trying to appeal to as wide a swath of public opinion as they could manage. Although the Republicans were generally conservative and the Democrats generally liberal, there was a huge area of overlap between them. They were divided, not so much by governing philosophies, as by somewhat divergent interest groups along with their pet issues. Big business tended to support the Republicans, while big labour was onside of the Democrats.

In those days there were conservative Democrats, many from the south, who championed the rights of the states over what they saw as an excessively intrusive federal government. Senator Strom Thurmond and Alabama Governor George Wallace exemplified this group. There were also liberal Republicans, such as the late Illinois Senator Charles Percy, who introduced legislation to encourage the building of affordable housing for low-income families. After the US Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand in 1973, the two parties were internally divided on the issue, with pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats sharing the political landscape with pro-life Republicans and pro-choice Democrats. Even Senator Edward Kennedy initially considered himself pro-life.

When I started teaching a quarter of a century ago, this was still largely the lay of the land, but no longer. In recent years the two parties have become increasingly polarized. Although there is still a dwindling number of pro-life Democrats, the party leadership has deliberately marginalized them. Those who persist in maintaining their convictions on this issue find themselves unable to advance within its ranks. Even Democrats for Life America is compelled to pose this question on its website: “Can you be pro-life in a pro-choice party?” Although Catholics and Southern Baptists were once integral components of the Democratic coalition, the current secularizing leadership has pulled the party in a direction that would have been unthinkable to Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Sensing that the Democratic Party was moving away from the American mainstream, the Republican Party successfully reached out to these two core groups in the 1980s, thereby adding the so-called “Reagan Democrats” to its own support base. The Republicans looked set to establish their own dynasty for years to come, capitalizing on the missteps of the opposition. With the current administration’s attack on the religious freedom of faith-based organizations, this should be the Republicans’ year. But things may not turn out that way.

Although the libertarian component had always been part of the Republican coalition, it has gained more visibility with the Tea Party in recent years. As Mitt Romney was poised to become his party’s standard bearer last month, he chose as his vice-presidential candidate Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who has Tea Party support. Ryan once professed to be heavily influenced by Russian-American author Ayn Rand, who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. An atheist and avowed opponent of altruism, she championed the individual over the community, as seen in her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which have a cult following amongst North American libertarians. Rand’s preferred social ethic would see a minimal state at best, along with a strict laissez-faire economy. From her perspective, the welfare state is not just ineffective and expensive; it is immoral.

Sad to say, polarization has brought out the worst elements in both parties. The Democrats seem to be controlled by those who misunderstand the comprehensive claims of religious faith, narrowing freedom of religion to a mere freedom of worship. The Republicans appear to be flirting with social Darwinists who believe in survival of the fittest. Not a pretty picture.

Yet there is more here than meets the eye. Both parties accept the historic liberal preference for individualism and voluntarism. One defends the right of individuals to follow their own personal and sexual preferences, even at the expense of institutions with stricter internal membership standards. The other believes the individual should pursue his or her own economic goals, even at the expense of the commons. If Democrats and Republicans are indeed polarized, it is not, after all, over basic principles; it is over who has rightful title to those principles.

I will not presume to predict a winner in November, but I will predict that there will be no happily ever after.

06 September 2012

Québec . . . encore une fois

The voters of Québec went to the polls two days ago and brought the Parti québécois back to power for the first time since 2003. Its leader Pauline Marois thus becomes premier of the province and leader of a minority PQ government. Her Liberal predecessor, Jean Charest, lost his own seat and quickly resigned his leadership of the Parti libéral du Québec. According to the province's chief electoral officer, the PQ won 54 seats with 31.94% of the popular vote, the PLQ won 50 seats with 31.21%, the Coalition Avenir Québec won 19 seats with 27.06%, and Québec solidaire 2 seats with 6.03%. Total voter turnout was 74.61% of those eligible.

The main thing to be noted about these results is that the PQ and the PLQ were virtually tied in the popular vote, each winning less than a third of the total popular vote. Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for the Future of Quebec) trailed the other two parties by only 4 points yet won far fewer seats. This means that 23.83% of the province's eligible voters have, at least potentially, put the national unity issue back on the front burner for all of us. If Québec had some form of proportional representation in place, there would be two likely effects: (1) no party would have been capable of governing on its own, thus necessitating the formation of a coalition government of at least two parties and thereby softening the separatist influence; and (2) voter turnout would likely have been higher, as the risk of wasted votes is lower.

It's past time for electoral reform in this country.

10 August 2012

A non-messianic presidency

Do Americans expect too much of the president of the United States, and do presidential candidates themselves unwisely encourage such unrealistic expectations in voters?

Back in 1787, when the American founders fashioned their constitutional document for a new federal republic, they began with a discussion of legislative power in Article I, moving on to executive power only in Article II. Why? Because the Congress of the United States was intended to be the preeminent body representing the interests of the people and of the several states, each of which was still jealous of its own autonomy in the new system. When Article I, section 8 sets forth the enumerated powers of the federal government (the remainder being reserved for the states by the Tenth Amendment), the expression, “Congress of the United States,” is for all practical purposes synonymous with the federal government as a whole.

Read more here.

18 July 2012

Liberal and conservative Christianity . . . and 'in between'

Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass have had their say. Now Rachel Held Evans has weighed in on the issue: Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-In-Between. She finds lacking in both positions a sense that "we’re in this together, that, as followers of Jesus, we may need to put our heads together to re-imagine what it means to be the Church in a postmodern, American culture where confidence in organized religion is at an all-time low." In the meantime, however, she professes to be caught between the two:
For one thing, I don’t "fit" in the conservative evangelical church:

I believe in evolution.
I vote for democrats.
I doubt.
I enjoy interfaith dialog and cooperation.
I like smells, bells, liturgy, and ritual—particularly when it comes to the Eucharist.
I’m passionate about gender equality in marriage and church leadership.
I’m tired of the culture wars.
I want to become a better advocate for social justice.
I want my LGBT friends to feel welcome and accepted in their own churches.
I’m convinced that the Gospel is about more than “getting saved” from hell.

But I don’t "fit" in the progressive, Mainline church either.

I love a good Bible study.
I think doctrine and theology are important enough to teach and debate.
I think it’s vital that we talk about, and address, sin.
I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus.
I want to participate in interfaith dialog and cooperation while still maintaining a strong Christian identity.
I want to engage in passionate worship, passionate justice, and passionate biblical study and application, passionate community.
I’m totally down with a bit of spontaneous, group “popcorn” prayer, complete with hand-holding and references to the Holy Spirit “moving in this place.”
I’m convinced that the Gospel is about more than being a good person.

On one level I can sympathize with Evans' feeling of being caught between polar extremes. Too often I experience this with respect to the political options on offer in North America. I have rarely voted enthusiastically. I generally vote against rather than for. Our electoral systems exacerbate the artificial duality of our politics. With respect to church life I am a member of a Presbyterian congregation, where I know in my heart I belong. I strongly believe that the Reformed tradition is most faithful to God's word revelation. However, I could wish that Reformed Christians celebrated the Lord's Supper as frequently as Anglicans and Lutherans, whose liturgies are much closer to the historic shape of western worship as it has developed over the course of nearly two millennia. So even on the ecclesial front I know what it is to feel caught in between.

However, something about the tone of Evans' piece bothers me. If she were arguing that her own position were somehow more biblically faithful or more obedient to God's expressed word than those of evangelicals and mainliners, then what she says might be worth hearing and weighing in the balance. But I don't hear her making such a case. What I do hear is: "I enjoy. . .", "I like. . .", "I'm tired. . .", "I want. . ." (this last one four times). I don't quite understand "I’m totally down with. . .", but I think it means she approves! In other words, Evans appears to be presenting a checklist of personal preferences which together make up something idiosyncratic at best. I could come up with a similar checklist, but all it would add up to is something that might as well be called "Koyzism," a religious "tradition" with, to put it mildly, precious few adherents. It would be presumptuous of me to stand in judgement on various Christian communities for not conforming to my checklist.

Obviously I would never try to assess the merits of Evans' personal faith. Nevertheless, because she hasn't really presented a solid justification for her somewhat eclectic collection of preferences, it is difficult to know why her remarks should have relevance for the rest of us. Admittedly, Evans does offer this near the end of her post:
I have no problem with Christians arguing with one another. Really. We’re brothers and sisters, for goodness sake! Of course we’re going to argue! We just need to learn to do it better.

Good advice, that last sentence. Yet arguing implies offering an actual argument, that is, the articulation of a reasoned defence of one's position by appealing to commonly acknowledged standards and authorities. Unfortunately, mere checklists will not take us very far in this direction.

16 July 2012

Collapse or vitality: liberal versus conservative Christianity

The New York Times' contrarian wunderkind Ross Douthat wonders aloud: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?, against the backdrop of the collapse in the membership of the Episcopal Church.
The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.

But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)

Progressive christian guru Diana Butler Bass asks a different question: Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat. Bass points out that liberal churches are not the only denominations in decline, pointing to the Southern Baptist Convention, the Missouri Synod Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church, the first two of which have lost members in recent years, with the third maintaining its numbers only through largely hispanic immigration. Bass thinks that the liberal churches may have got there first but that conservative churches are not that far behind. Nevertheless, despite discouraging numbers, she believes there is vitality in liberal churches:
Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is--in some congregations at least--undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were "counter-intuitive" to the usual narrative of American church life.

There is more than a little historical irony in this. A quiet renewal is occurring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a twentieth century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now.

A focus on membership statistics is not entirely out of order, of course, as a chronically empty building with stained-glass windows can hardly be said to be a church by anyone's definition. Nevertheless, an ecclesiastical populism that simply panders to the crowd scarcely makes for satisfactory church life either. It seems to me that both conservative and liberal churches are caught up in similar games, even if their strategies are quite different.

Conservative churches generally maintain the purity of the gospel message, that is, the focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ, better than do liberal churches, but they too easily cast off the historic creeds, confessions and liturgies that have shaped the church down through the ages. The church itself is no longer an authoritative institution bearing the keys of the kingdom; it is rather a gathering of spiritually like-minded individuals who prefer to worship a certain way – a way which, not so incidentally, mimics much of contemporary popular culture. Litur-tainment, if you will. Worship itself is differentiated according to market share, with traditional, contemporary and blended worship services catering to a variety of tastes at what might be called an ecclesiastical smorgasbord.

Liberal churches tend to overuse such buzzwords as "inclusive," "open," "affirming" and "safe," playing down confessional distinctives and much of the content of the gospel message itself as summarized in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. Gone, very largely, is the call to repent and to live a biblically obedient way of life – apart, of course, from voting for the received politically correct causes. Liberals rather implausibly stake a claim to occupy the "mainline" of protestantism, although their version of the faith is increasingly distant from the historic mainstream of the christian faith itself, as J. Gresham Machen observed already nearly a century ago. In other words, the understanding of what constitutes the mainline is historically shallow and is based on the primacy of subjective experience and preferences over biblical revelation. Jesus Christ may be held up, but more as an ethical example than as actual Redeemer from sin and death.

Thus far, the liberal approach has succeeded in emptying the pews, despite the rhetoric of inclusivity. As it turns out, a church whose message is indistinguishable from that of the larger culture and refrains from calling to repentance and conversion quickly finds itself becoming redundant. Why bother getting up early on sunday morning for such thin spiritual gruel? Bass may be correct in noting the presence of vitality in some liberal congregations. But mere liveliness can be found in a variety of settings, including workplaces and garden clubs. It's not an argument for the church as such.

The "conservative" approach may be winning more people at present, but long-term prospects remain in doubt. Many of today's most successful mega-churches are heirs of the 19th-century "New Measures" revivalism of Charles Finney which places an emphasis on the use of clever techniques, including the notorious Anxious Bench, to elicit huge numbers of "conversions." If Michael Horton's analysis is correct, Finney himself appears to have held to a moral example view of Christ's atonement. The "conservatives" may be standing unknowingly on the same shaky ground that is failing to support the liberals.

What if the church were to subordinate concern for numbers, budgets, and social and political causes to the primary imperative of biblical faithfulness? What if it were to place its concern for bringing in converts within the larger context of the call to live the new life in the power of the Holy Spirit? The church might be smaller or larger than it is today. Its members would not be ignoring social and political issues; in fact they might increase their engagement with these. But they would do so along lines that recognize the clear authority of God's written word over the whole of life. They would be pursuing not just personal moral effort, nor social justice as understood in a narrowly ideological sense. They would seek instead to advance the kingdom in all its fulness through unwavering fidelity to the cause of Christ, consisting of properly oriented – dare I say "converted" – labour, leisure, liturgy and life.

13 July 2012

'Getting saved' and assurance

J. D. Greear asks: Should We Stop Asking Jesus Into Our Hearts?

By the time I reached the age of 18 I had probably "asked Jesus into my heart" 5,000 times. I started somewhere around age 4 when I approached my parents one Saturday morning asking how someone could know that they were going to heaven. They carefully led me down the "Romans Road to Salvation," and I gave Jesus his first invitation into my heart. . . .

[But h]ad I really been sorry for my sins? And could I really have known what I was doing at age 4?

So I asked Jesus to come into my heart again, this time with a resolve to be much more intentional about my faith. I requested re-baptism, and gave a very moving testimony in front of our congregation about getting serious with God.

Not long after that, however, I found myself asking again: Had I really been sorry enough for my sin this time around? I'd see some people weep rivers of tears when they got saved, but I hadn't done that. Did that mean I was not really sorry? And there were a few sins I seemed to fall back into over and over again, no matter how many resolutions I made to do better. Was I really sorry for those sins? Was that prayer a moment of total surrender? Would I have died for Jesus at that moment if he'd asked?

So I prayed the sinner's prayer again. And again. And again. Each time trying to get it right, each time really trying to mean it. I would have a moment when I felt like I got it right and experienced a temporary euphoria. But it would fade quickly and I'd question it all again. And so I'd pray again.

Although my experience was quite different from Greear's, I did go through something of a crisis of assurance of salvation in high school. It was not a major crisis, but it was enough to cause me to wonder whether I had gone through the right procedures to "get saved." At some point it finally dawned on me that I needed to trust the promises of God in Christ and not the efficacy of my own decision-making abilities. I suppose that's one of the reasons why I love so much the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. What is your only comfort
in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own,
but belong—
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.

11 July 2012

God Save the Queen, revisited

This was just published in the 9 July issue of Christian Courier:

Just ahead of the celebration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee last month, the Toronto Star had the bad judgement to publish an article by Bob Hepburn, titled, The Queen: three steps for Canada to replace the monarchy. He proposes a three-step process, the first of which would be a national referendum on this question: “Should Canada sever ties with the British monarchy?”

From the outset Hepburn has revealed his shaky understanding of our constitution, as revealed in this misleading question. This country’s ties to the “British” monarchy were ended as long ago as 1931 with the Statute of Westminster. Since that time Canada has had its own Crown and at present shares the occupant of that office with 15 other Commonwealth Realms, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. We have no ties remaining with the British monarchy.

Nevertheless, let us for a moment follow Hepburn’s proposal and see where it might take us. To alter the status of Canada’s Queen would require the approval of both chambers of Parliament and all ten provincial legislatures under section 41 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Thus far our attempts at constitutional change under this unanimity requirement have been spectacularly unsuccessful, as we experienced with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. A referendum on even a properly-worded question would probably not receive majority support in every province. A provincial government would be unwise to ignore the advice of the voters.

However, for our present purposes we shall assume that this unanimity is within reach. Then what? We would have to decide what to put in place of the monarchy. Perhaps a state presidency would replace the governor general’s office. How then would the president attain his or her position? The Indian president is elected by the members of both parliamentary chambers and of the state legislatures. We could do the same, but it seems unlikely that Canadians would want to leave the selection of a new head of state in the hands of politicians, which does not differ that much from how our current governor general is appointed.

The obvious democratic alternative would be to have the voters elect directly a new state president. However, a popularly-elected president would enjoy a democratic legitimacy that would effectively increase his or her power within the political system as a whole. This could give Canada a constitution similar to that of the French Fifth Republic in which executive power is shared – and sometimes contested – by president and prime minister. Might our new president take initiatives against the advice of the government of the day? In the absence of explicit constitutional constraints on the office, this is a distinct possibility.

We could, of course, abolish the office of prime minister altogether and have only an elected president, who would be responsible directly to the people rather than to parliament. Obviously this would take us into American territory. The United States has functioned quite well for 225 years with a separation of powers between president and congress. But Canada is not the United States. Our political traditions have developed differently in accordance with the central constitutional principle of responsible government. Under responsible government the prime minister and cabinet must retain the confidence of the House of Commons in order to keep governing. To abandon this principle, with all of its attendant usages and customs, would not be wise at this late stage.

More significant, however, is the fact that prime ministerial and royal functions really are different and require different offices. Nearly four years ago in this space, I observed that Americans had elected Barack Obama because of his kingly qualities and his promises to seek consensus and unify the nation. Since then, however, Obama, in typical prime ministerial fashion, has pursued divisive policies which, among other things, threaten the religious freedom of faith-based institutions.

Unlike Americans, we in Canada already enjoy a political system that quite sensibly separates these two executive functions into distinct offices. Our constitutional monarchy has served us very well for centuries, and we have every reason to celebrate it rather than to entertain ill-considered proposals for its abolition.

09 July 2012

Recovering the Practice of Communal Singing

Just before the dawn of the recording industry, popular songs were sold to the North American public in a format requiring of customers more musical literacy. When Let Me Call You Sweetheart and Down by the Old Mill Stream were published in 1910, their popularity was judged by sales of sheet music, and not yet by the records that would come into their own during the interwar years. Yes, people would attend performances of these songs by local bands and choirs, but they were more likely to gather round the upright piano at home and sing them together. People had to make their own music rather than rely on others to make it for them. Obviously not everyone had professional-quality voices, but that didn't matter. Young and old alike sang their hearts out.

Although I was born well into the recording age, I grew up in a family that sang with gusto at the slightest provocation. We had two pianos in our house, and everyone played at least one musical instrument. We were raised on the old movie musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe and, of course, Meredith Wilson, whose score for The Music Man harked back to that earlier era just before the outbreak of the Great War. In fact, so many times did we play The Music Man soundtrack that scratches eventually caused the record to skip. (If you were raised on CDs, ask your parents or grandparents what that means.) The notion of Julie Andrews breaking into song in the course of her day did not strike us as the least bit unusual.

Where did all this come from? Read more here.

23 June 2012

A partisan party gift?

I prefer to be charitable and assume this is someone's idea of a very bad joke:



19 June 2012

The True Genius of the U.S. Constitution

An article of mine was published last week in the Center for Public Justice's Capital Commentary:

This year marks the 225th anniversary of the United States Constitution, by far the oldest functioning constitutional document still in effect. It has weathered the vicissitudes of history, including a devastating Civil War that threatened to fragment the nation and its people permanently. By contrast, the German Basic Law dates only from 1949, and the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic from 1958. What is the key to the U.S. Constitution’s remarkable longevity?

One well-known narrative has it that the Founding Fathers were skilled constitutional architects, fashioning a political system whose internal institutions are so perfectly balanced that no one of these could gain the upper hand and suppress the others. The Fathers read Baron Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, in which the author argued that liberty is most likely to thrive under a constitution providing that power check power. Where legislative, executive and judicial powers are not separated, there can be no liberty.

Yet Montesquieu never claimed to have invented this separation of powers. Read more here.

An enduring legacy: Chuck Colson (1931-2012)

As promised, here is something I wrote about Chuck Colson for Christian Courier. It appeared in the 14 May issue:

As a young man, I cut my political teeth on the Watergate scandal, which brought down a sitting president and led to the conviction and incarceration of several members of his administration. One of these was Charles Wendell Colson, known to everyone as Chuck. As Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon, he gained a deserved reputation for ruthlessness in the conduct of his office. Thus the announcement in 1973 that he had become a Christian was greeted with a general sense of disbelief by many who knew him. Could someone so thoroughly imbued with the ethos of Machiavelli suddenly take on the mantle of evangelist?

Yet Colson’s conversion was the genuine article, and for the next nearly four decades he devoted his life to the cause of Christ in a very public way. After serving time in prison, he founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, an outreach programme to prisoners and their families aimed at turning around lives that might otherwise be wasted within the bowels of America’s criminal justice system. There were a number of elements in this ministry, including Angel Tree, which has enabled prisoners to give Christmas gifts and messages of love to their families on the outside.

Had Colson limited his efforts to assisting prisoners and their families, he would have been justly remembered for having performed a great work for the cause of the gospel. But he went beyond this, focussing further on the domestic justice system, political action and encouraging among ordinary Christians the cultivation of a biblical worldview. This made him a latter-day heir of William Wilberforce, Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer, three Christians whom he admired and whose efforts for the kingdom of God he sought to emulate.

Wilberforce, for whom the think tank arm of Prison Fellowship is named, was the great English statesman who successfully ended the slave trade, laying the groundwork for its eventual abolition in the British Empire just days before his own death in 1833. Kuyper, of course, needs no introduction to readers of Christian Courier. Schaeffer, who along with his wife Edith founded l’Abri in Switzerland, authored several books from the late 1960s until his death in 1984 in which he analyzed art and literature with an eye towards discerning the underlying worldviews therein.

From my perspective one of Colson’s most significant contributions was to raise Kuyper’s profile amongst North American evangelicals to an unprecedented degree. I first became aware of Kuyper’s rich legacy at age 20 through a friend at a Christian university in the States. At that time Kuyper was not at all well unknown outside of Dutch Reformed circles, but this is no longer the case, due in no small measure to Colson and more specifically to his one-time collaborator Nancy Pearcey, who once studied with some of my friends, former teachers and colleagues at the Institute for Christian Studies.

Not surprisingly, Colson was no stranger to controversy. He was castigated for reviewing books and films in his broadcast Breakpoint commentaries which he had not actually read or seen. Such commentaries were apparently written by others for him to read over the air. Colson’s prolific book output was aided by staff writers who, it was charged, did most of the work but for little or no credit. A dispute over who would receive top billing led to a break between him and Pearcey after their successful collaboration on How Now Shall We Live?, with Pearcey making not so veiled allusions to this episode in the final chapter of her own Total Truth a few years later.

Moreover, Colson sometimes made it seem that Christian political involvement was for the purpose of saving America rather than for being faithful to a God who sovereignly works out his purposes throughout the world. Like the Social Gospellers of old, he tended to confuse the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:26-28) with Christ’s redemption of creation, a conflation with potentially troublesome consequences for an orthodox doctrine of salvation.

Nevertheless, he successfully built bridges of co-operation between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, along with his friend Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who preceded him in death by three years. In this too he followed the example of his mentor, Abraham Kuyper, who forged an enduring political alliance with Catholics in the Netherlands a century ago.

14 June 2012

The papal paradox

Not many people are aware of a remarkable assertion by St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome (c. 540-604), as recounted by Michael Horton:
Ancient Christian leaders of the East gave special honor to the bishop of Rome, but considered any claim of one bishop’s supremacy to be an act of schism. Even in the West such a privilege was rejected by Gregory the Great in the sixth century. He expressed offense at being addressed by a bishop as “universal pope”: “a word of proud address that I have forbidden….None of my predecessors ever wished to use this profane word ['universal']….But I say it confidently, because whoever calls himself ‘universal bishop’ or wishes to be so called, is in his self-exaltation Antichrist’s precursor, for in his swaggering he sets himself before the rest” (Gregory I, Letters; tr. NPNF 2 ser.XII. i. 75-76; ii. 170, 171, 179, 166, 169, 222, 225).

These words are also quoted by Jean Calvin in his Institutes IV.vii.16.

This would seem to raise a logical difficulty similar to the famous Cretan Paradox. St. Gregory is esteemed as an early Pope by the Roman Catholic Church. A decree of the First Vatican Council in 1870 proclaimed the Pope's infallibility when speaking ex cathedra. The Pope claims to be universal head of the Church, set above the other bishops. Yet Gregory himself explicitly repudiated this title for himself. If he did so infallibly, that might mean that the universal head of the Church is nothing of the sort. Or does it? Assuming they are aware of it, how would the current leadership in Rome go about resolving this paradox?

13 June 2012

Over-reacting to 'creeping sharia'


Matthew Schmitz is dead on in alerting us to the negative impact of Fears of ‘Creeping Sharia’. Several US states, including Kansas, are taking legislative action to stop what they persist in believing to be a domestic threat from muslim sharia law. Such efforts are of dubious constitutionality and are in fact a threat, not only to everyone's religious liberty, but to a robust conception of what I would call legal pluriformity.
Sharia, of course, does not grant all the rights that the U.S. Constitution does; neither does Christian canon law or Jewish Halakhic law (or English or French law, for that matter). But why should this fact prevent a court from honoring a contract made under the provisions of one of these “foreign” legal systems if the contract does not itself violate any U.S. or state regulations, laws, or constitutional provisions? Under one reading of the Kansas law, a contract that makes reference to canon law or sharia — but is otherwise perfectly legal — would be thrown out, while an identical one that makes no such reference would be upheld.

Rarely do laws enacted hurriedly in response to a perceived danger take sufficient care to uphold public justice for all. Indeed, state legislators who have too quickly jumped on this bandwagon should reconsider whether they might inadvertently be paving the way for a general levelling of legitimate legal pluriformity for everyone, muslim and nonmuslim alike.

Legal pluriformity means simply that the state is not the only source of law. Every community possesses a jural aspect and is characterized by an internal law to which members are subject. These include the household rules of a family set by the parents, the bylaws of a business corporation, the syllabus in the classroom, the faculty handbook in the university, and so forth. As Schmitz properly recognizes, legal pluriformity also encompasses canon law of the church and even sharia law in the mosque. The notion, popular in some quarters, that all these types of law owe their ultimate validity to the state is a totalitarian conception that should find no place in a constitutional democracy. Let us hope and pray that saner heads will prevail sooner rather than later.

12 June 2012

June snippets

  • I really wanted to be at the Christians in Political Science conference at Gordon College last week, but was unable to make it. Fortunately one of the highlights, Miroslav Volf's lecture, was recorded and has been posted on youtube. One of the respondents, Dr. Paul Brink, is a former student of mine.



  • William T. Cavanaugh has written a very helpful article in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, titled, Does Religion Cause Violence? Conventional wisdom in the west today takes it for granted that religion is intrinsically divisive and that an enlightened secularism keeping religion in its proper place better contributes to the public good. But what if that's not the case after all? Cavanaugh draws attention to the reality that those most likely to charge religious believers with fomenting violence, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, detect no inconsistency in their own willingness to excuse a (violent!) pre-emptive strike against those they view as religious fanatics. Here's Cavanaugh:
    We must conclude that there is no coherent way to isolate "religious" ideologies with a peculiar tendency toward violence from their tamer "secular" counterparts. So-called secular ideologies and institutions like nationalism and liberalism can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrational as so-called religion. People kill for all sorts of things. An adequate approach to the problem would be resolutely empirical: under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices—jihad, the "invisible hand" of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the role of the United States as worldwide liberator—turn violent? The point is not simply that "secular" violence should be given equal attention to "religious" violence. The point is that the distinction between "secular" and "religious" violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether.

  • Christianity Today carries an intriguing article that merits wide exposure and thoughtful discussion: Thomas E. Bergler's When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity. The youth rallies of the 1940s and '50s have remade the churches and not always for the good. As the subtitle puts it, "We're all adolescents now."
    Juvenilization happened when no one was looking. In the first stage, Christian youth leaders created youth-friendly versions of the faith in a desperate attempt to save the world. Some hoped to reform their churches by influencing the next generation. Others expected any questionable innovations to stay comfortably quarantined in youth rallies and church basements. Both groups were less concerned about long-term consequences than about immediate appeals to youth.

    In the second stage, a new American adulthood emerged that looked a lot like the old adolescence. Fewer and fewer people outgrew the adolescent Christian spiritualities they had learned in youth groups; instead, churches began to cater to them.

    This regression from adulthood to adolescence is a general phenomenon that others have remarked upon. Could the contemporary tendency to replace worship with litur-tainment be one symptom of this juvenilization of North American Christianity?

  • The standard narrative has it that religious observance is declining in the west. However, David Goodhew reports that Startling academic research shows widespread church growth in Britain. Here are some surprising statistics:
    There are 500,000 Christians in black majority churches in Britain. Sixty years ago there were hardly any. At least 5,000 new churches have been started in Britain since 1980 – and this is an undercount. The true figure is probably higher. There are one million Christians in Britain from black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities. The adult membership of the Anglican Diocese of London has risen by over 70 per cent since 1990.

    Nihilistic secularism is inherently unstable and cannot sustain a civilization over the long term. Perhaps Britons are finally discovering this for themselves.

  • Now we read of this important archaeological discovery: Ancient Bethlehem seal found; first reference to city outside Bible:
    Israeli archaeologists digging near the city of Jerusalem have discovered an ancient clay bulla, about 2,700 years old, bearing the name Bethlehem. The artifact is the only known ancient reference to the city of Jesus' birth found outside the Bible, experts said. The find shows not only that the city existed, but that it probably also had a thriving commercial trade.

  • The Hakka people of Taiwan and China finally have the complete Bible in their own language. Last sunday Dr. Paul McLean spoke at our church about his efforts to produce this treasured edition of God's word in the language of one of Taiwan's minority communities. It's an inspiring story.



    McLean's son Peter bicycled across Canada to raise money for this important project. May God use this new translation to further the advance of his kingdom amongst the Hakka people.
  • 10 June 2012

    George Parkin Grant's Lament for Canada

    I somehow managed to miss this episode of Steve Pakin's Agenda devoted to the late George Parkin Grant:

    Go to the 35-minute mark for Grant's expressed reason why, despite his appreciation for social democratic economic policy, he could not bring himself to trust the New Democratic Party. Fascinating stuff. I myself was privileged to meet Grant on two occasions over three decades ago, one of which I recount here: George Grant and the Primacy of Economics.

    07 June 2012

    William G. Witt on biblical authority

    As a followup to my earlier post, Warning: this bible is loaded, I would like to draw attention to a marvellous paragraph from a piece by William G. Witt with obvious relevance to the issue of biblical authority:

    There is a danger that discussions about the authority of Scripture may turn into exercises in exegetical casuistry. We can use Scripture in the way that lawyers use case precedents either to vindicate or convict a defendant. The focus of concern can become: What can I get away with? What meaning will the text bear? Can it be read to further my cause? A “minimalist” interpretation of Scripture can be as guilty of this as is a Puritan tendency toward “maximalism.” There is a danger of focusing on the texts as documents, and forgetting that the Scriptures are not self-referential. They speak of a reality beyond themselves, namely, God’s creation and redemption of the world and humanity in Jesus Christ. The purpose of exegesis is not only to decipher the grammatical meaning of the text or to find precedents for permissible or impermissible behavior, but to allow oneself to be formed and transformed by the reality to which the Scriptures refer so that one can find oneself within the Bible’s story of creation and redemption. But in order to do this, one must be willing to hand oneself over to the world of the text, to allow oneself to be challenged and even changed by it [emphasis mine].

    Very well said. Witt is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Readers can follow his writings and sermons at his website.

    02 June 2012

    God Save the Queen

    This weekend we celebrate the Queen's diamond jubilee, a milestone equalled by very few of the world's monarchs. On this occasion, I thought I would tell of my two brushes with our royal family over the decades.

    The first occurred 37 years ago, during my first trip to Europe. I was in London at St. Paul's Cathedral, the impressive baroque structure built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666. While there I happened to see the late Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, accompanied by the Lord Mayor of London and flanked by two lines of Girl Guides, coming out of the cathedral after the end of a worship service (top right photo). I can no longer recall, if I ever knew, what the occasion was. Incidentally, Princess Alice lived a very long time indeed, as she was born in 1901 and died as recently as 2004, thus breaking the royal record for longevity at 102 years.

    My second brush with royalty was with the Queen herself during her visit to Hamilton ten years ago on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee. My wife and daughter and I drove down to Dundurn Castle to view her motorcade as it drove down York Boulevard on its way from Toronto to Copps Coliseum, where she was to present two banners to The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada (Princess Louise's) at a special ceremony. As she was running late, her motorcade sped by quickly, much to the disappointment of the well-wishers who had turned out to greet her. Many people decided to leave after that point. However, our persistence was rewarded on her return trip once the ceremony had ended. Her motorcade passed by more slowly this time. The window of her car was open, and we easily saw the woman who had reigned over Canada for 50 years. She offered us her characteristic wave, much to our delight. The three of us were the last people she saw in Hamilton, for right after that we saw her motorcade pull off on the Highway 403 exit towards Toronto.

    Our daughter Theresa was only three years old at the time and did not quite understand the significance of the woman she had just seen. She was more interested in our planned excursion to the Greek Corner Store and Bakery on King Street East and was looking forward to being treated to a Greek cookie by the doting proprietors.

    Incidentally, the two banners the Queen delivered to the Argylls now hang in the front of our church, Central Presbyterian, which is the group's regimental church.

    Of the two sets of banners, the upper ones were delivered by the Queen in 2002.

    The lower banners have hung in our church for decades.

    01 June 2012

    Abuse of Parliament

    Andrew Coyne is a generally conservative commentator, but he has been highly critical of Stephen Harper's seeming contempt for Parliament. Here's his most recent broadside: Degradation of Parliament is complete.
    There was a time, after all, when even a prime minister had to mind his backbench - or at any rate, when the caucus had not yet been reduced to a mere appendage of the government. We think of them now as more or less the same thing, but they are not, in principle, and did not use to be in practice. Until the Second World War, before an MP could take up an appointment to cabinet - I mean an MP of the governing party - he had to resign his seat and run in a byelection. The reason? His role had changed. He was no longer a watchdog on the government, as MPs of whatever party are supposed to be, but had become a member of it. As such, he was obliged to seek the permission of his electors - of his bosses, you might say. That is how people thought.

    Compare to today, when MPs, at least on the government side, have long ceased to perform any such watchdog role - when those few, indeed, who have not been made a part of the government in some capacity have been suborned into behaving as if they were, handing out cheques and officiating at ribbon-cutting ceremonies just like real ministers of the Crown.

    As for the current government's omnibus budget bill, C-38, Coyne is right. Such bills are mischievous, as American experience has demonstrated time and again. Perhaps we need an old-fashioned backbench revolt for a change.

    31 May 2012

    Constitutional nonsense from The Star

    "Award-winning journalist" Bob Hepburn spouts off on a subject on which he is ill-informed: The Queen: three steps for Canada to replace the monarchy.

    For most of her reign, the Queen has been a symbol of stability, dedication and continuity.
    But with her reign nearing an end, the time is right for Canadians to start the process of cutting our formal ties to the British monarchy, an outmoded institution that dates back to the days when Canada was a British colony. . . .
    A three-step process should be considered. First, Ottawa should hold a national referendum on a Yes-or-No question: “Should Canada sever ties with the British monarchy?” A simple majority would be sufficient to proceed further.

    Hepburn badly needs a refresher course in this country's constitutional history. Our governors general have not represented the British Crown since 1931, when the Statute of Westminster established the constitutional equality of the what used to be called Dominions (now Commonwealth Realms) with the United Kingdom itself. Canada retains no ties whatsoever with the British Crown. The Queen is Queen of Canada in her own right, as she is of her 15 other Commonwealth Realms. More from Hepburn:

    In the 21st century, it is unfathomable that Canada, a modern, multicultural nation that champions diversity, still tolerates having a foreign queen or king as its head of state.

    Apart from the fact that the Queen is by no means foreign to Canada, Hepburn fails to unpack what he appears to think is an obvious connection between diversity and multiculturalism on the one hand and Canada's status as a constitutional monarchy on the other. Whatever he thinks it is, it is not evident to everyone and requires a reasoned defence.

    While we're on the subject, C. G. P. Grey explains to us the "True Cost of the Royal Family." Whether we Canadians reap any of these financial advantages is questionable. We certainly can't reap the same benefit from tourism that Britain can. Nevertheless, it does help to put things in perspective.

    15 May 2012

    Warning: this bible is loaded

    There can be no doubt that many people read the Bible incorrectly and unwisely, missing such literary elements as figures of speech, including metaphors, similes, &c. Reading a metaphorical passage too literally is certainly one way of misreading scripture. Nevertheless, assuming the following account is accurate, there is something disquieting about the recent conference on Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity: Emergent Christians Warn against the Bible’s “Loaded Guns”:
    Carl Stauffer, professor of Development and Justice Studies at Eastern Mennonite University, warned against the Bible’s “seemingly divinely ordained violence.” Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren similarly worried about how church-going parents can give their children “loaded guns” in the form of “texts of terror” condoning war and other violence. He wondered whether unfiltered Bible-reading could “leave them with the idea that God is violent.” And he warned: “Bible-preaching/teaching/reading people are the most dangerous in the world for Muslims.”

    After McLaren advised emergent parents to seek out the “texts of healing” in the Bible, he talked about how the Bible’s economic teachings could help stave off violence in society. The Old and New Testament narratives “focus on desire—especially competitive desire—as the root of violence.” The best-selling author complained, “Our entire economic system is based on rivalrous desire.” Author, educator, and panelist Ivy Beckwith explained: “Desire is another word for self-interest.”

    Is the word unfiltered McLaren's, or that of Barton Gingerich, the article's author? It matters because, if it's McLaren's, it seems to imply that the Bible needs to be censored by the more enlightened — presumably the conference speakers themselves — for the benefit of the rest of us.

    I personally know people who came to the faith, not by going to church or through a Christian friend, but simply by reading the Bible, a book they had not been familiar with up to then. They read it through in its entirety, including such grisly stories as that related in Judges 19-21. Despite the messiness and violence of the scriptural narrative, the Holy Spirit somehow managed to work in their hearts so that they were grabbed by it, fell in love with it and found their own place within it. They did not come to the Bible with the expectation that someone should make it "safe" for them. They never deemed it necessary to accept only those parts of scripture that they did not find offensive or that refrained from challenging their existing presuppositions. Far from it. They were cut to the quick, like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-40), asking, not "Who can make the Bible palatable to me?", but rather "What must I do to be saved?"

    Like a microscope into their own soul, reading the Bible prompted them to repent and turn to God for mercy. If some people profess to find the Bible dangerous, perhaps the world could use more such danger.

    07 May 2012

    Liturgical rapprochement, political division

    Ed Kilgore writes on The Widening Political Divide Between Catholicism and Mainline Protestantism in The New Republic. He notes that, paradoxically, while evangelicals and Roman Catholics have come together on moral and political issues, mainline protestants and Catholics have drawn more closely together liturgically:
    The signs of this realignment are most visible in politics. A highly traditionalist Catholic, Rick Santorum, who belongs to a parish where the Latin Mass is still celebrated, became the preferred presidential candidate of conservative evangelicals. Over the course of the primary campaign, it became clear that he shares the common conservative evangelical view that mainline Protestants are largely apostates, barely deserving inclusion in Christianity.

    Yet the single most notable trend in mainline American Protestantism in recent decades has been the adoption of liturgical practices associated with Catholicism, such as frequent communion and observance of liturgical seasons, particularly since Rome reformed its own liturgy during and after the Second Vatican Council Catholics and most mainline Protestants have long since adopted a common “lectionary” of scripture readings for use during worship services throughout the year. At the same time, the radical theological experiments that were once so fashionable in liberal Protestant circles have been subsiding; mainliners are far more likely to recite the historic Nicene or Apostle’s creeds during worship than are evangelicals. In other words, a growing number of mainline Protestants now worship much like Catholics. . . .

    More often than not, the evangelicals who accuse denominational leaders of abandoning “orthodoxy” in moral teaching are most avid to promote innovation in styles of worship. As an Episcopal priest in Maryland ruefully told me of conservative dissidents in his parish during the 1990s: “These people come to church with a Christian Coalition tract in one hand and a ‘praise hymnal’ in the other.”

    The tendency for North American evangelicals to defend the fundamentals of the faith while largely abandoning the older liturgical traditions is something that not enough observers have managed to find puzzling. On the other hand, it is also true that the major part of evangelicalism in this continent, though affirming a vague orthodoxy, lacks both a robust ecclesiology and a strong confessional identity, with only a very few exceptions. Perhaps then it is not surprising that distinctive traditions of worship should long ago have been set aside as well.

    Indeed, rather than leading them towards Rome, along with their mainline brethren, or towards the Reformation traditions, as one might expect, many evangelicals have instead subordinated worship, in utilitarian fashion, to the felt imperatives of church growth and reaching the so-called nonreligious. The result is worship that is not only deracinated but amounts merely to "one damn thing after another," as one of my favourite liturgical scholars once put it.

    So why is it that mainline protestants, who are scarcely less deracinated than their evangelical brethren, are increasingly reciting the Apostles' or Nicene Creed during worship?

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