David French and Christian Public Witness
Martin Luther certainly had a way with words:
“You are spiritual scarecrows and monk calves.”
“It is the old dragon from the abyss of hell who is standing before me!”
“Dear God, what an utterly shameless, blasphemous lying-mouth you are!”
“For you are an excellent person, as skillful, clever, and versed in Holy Scripture as a cow in a walnut tree.”
Some of Luther’s most colorful comments and rebukes, however, were directed at civil rulers. Though entertaining to read, they reflected, for Luther, an important principle of Christian prophetic witness in a fallen world. Indeed, throughout Luther’s works, he constantly reminded civil authorities of their ultimate responsibility to God. In his exposition of Psalm 82, Luther summoned Christians—especially those in an official ministry capacity—to reprove wayward rulers who had instituted unjust policies, lived immorally, or promoted civil unrest.
A failure to stand against civil rulers who advocated injustice, in Luther’s mind, amounted to Christians becoming “lazy and worthless,” for they capitulated on their obligation to “tell the princes and lords their sins.” He wrote, furthermore, “if you are in the ministry and are not willing to rebuke your gods [civil leaders] openly and publicly . . . go hang!” Language like this, and his sometimes positively foul-mouthed discourses, earned him the title as “Doctor Hyperbolicus.”
Yet, Luther rightly drew the conviction to confront kings and other civil leaders for their failure to perpetuate justice from prophets in the Old Testament as well as from examples in the New Testament. These included Samuel’s rebuke against Saul in 1 Samuel 13 and Nathan’s confrontation with David in 2 Samuel 12. Who could forget, moreover, Elija condemning Ahab as the one who troubled Israel because he had abandoned the Lord and led the people of Israel to worship Baal? Other examples included Isaiah’s rebuke of Hezekiah in Isaiah 39, and John the Baptist’s scolding of King Herod in Mark 6. Micah 3, furthermore, provided a pattern for God’s people to rebuff civil maladies and injustice perpetuated by civil rulers.
To be sure, Luther was not alone in his conviction about the Christian’s prophetic witness in this world. A myriad of examples throughout church history reveal how Christians understood their responsibility to contend for justice. They, along with Luther, drew upon clear examples and patterns from the Scriptures; it was the duty of God’s people to call wickedness “wicked.” These biblical examples also revealed the calamity and judgment that awaited civil rulers who, as Micah stated, “hate the good and love the evil.”
Regrettably, over the course of the last week, the United States Senate has moved the nation’s laws regarding marriage towards a love of the evil. The “Respect for Marriage Act” (RMA)—a horrendously titled piece of legislation—would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and codify parts of Obergefell. The push for this legislation began in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, were Justice Clarence Thomas issued a concurring opinion that questioned the validity of “substantive due process,” which had been used as legal justification for cases like Roe and, for the purposes of same-sex marriage, Obergefell.
The RMA legislation is fraught with error, especially with regard to religious liberty. Indeed, Kirsten Waggoner, the CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, recently showed how the RMA stood poised to gut religious liberty protections because of ambiguous language. Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, attempted to offer an amendment to the bill that stipulated clear protections on the issue of religious freedom; the bill sponsors wouldn’t even consider his amendment. Roger Severino of The Heritage Foundation stated as a result, “This bill puts a giant target on the back of individuals, nonprofit organizations, adoption agencies, schools, and business that hold fast to the truth about marriage.”
Christians have a responsibility in this present context to call this bill what it is: wicked. Aside from its failure to protect religious liberty, it codifies a view of marriage antithetical to the created order. Laws are not benign or mere words on a page—they instruct and signal what a society deems just. In the case of the RMA, Christians, animated by a biblically understood prophetic witness, must strive against this legislation, and warn our society against the ills that will come from a hardening of hearts against the proper design for marriage. A civilization cannot hope to stand if it eradicates the natural family. This legislation, furthermore, fails to recognize, as Katy Faust argued, fundamental rights that belong to children—namely, the right to a mother and a father. Indeed, our primary concern as believers is not merely the lack of protections for religious liberty—our highest antipathy should be directed towards laws that violate the natural law, thereby setting our legal system in direct opposition to what portends human flourishing.
Given our understanding of marriage, the family, and how essential healthy families are for any civilization, it was truly bewildering to see David French do exactly what the Scriptures warn us against: hating the good by promoting the evil.
French—an evangelical lawyer and public intellectual—authored two articles over the weekend in favor of the RMA. His arguments ought to leave Christians perplexed and utterly astounded. They were prime examples of what it looks like for a Christian to abandon his role as a prophetic witness in a society that seems bent on self-destruction.
In the first article, French framed the legislation as a victory for American pluralism; the RMA will provide “harmony between religious liberty and LGBTQ rights.” In French’s mind, the main thing to be preserved in the United States wasn’t a well-ordered society with laws that portended human flourishing. Instead, French prized a seemingly unrestricted vision of American pluralism—what he calls, “the magic of the American republic.” He argued that this magic “can create space for people who possess deeply different world views to live together, work together, and thrive together, even as they stay true to their different religious faiths and moral convictions.”
Is this the Christian’s primary concern? Is this what our prophetic witness should look like? Should our primary concern be a magic pluralism that, as seen on the bumper-sticker, allows us to merely coexist? Some level of principled pluralism is surely required, given the realities of our constitutional republic and of our fallen world. There exist, however, clear moral atrocities that set a society on a vector towards destruction and chaos. Throughout American history, it has been Christians who have summoned the nation’s leaders to have the will to enact true justice. This happened on the issue of slavery and race. It has happened on the issue of abortion. It ought to mark us now on the issue of marriage and the family. Yet, as I read the Scriptures, and as I look at examples like Luther throughout the history of the church, I don’t recognize French’s watered-down, anemic ethic of Christian engagement as anything close to faithful Christian witness in a culture gone mad.
French’s second article, however, further revealed his confusion and his willingness to call that which is wicked, “just.” On the issue of marriage, French suggested that “Outside of the most hard-core integralists or dominionists, there is broad and wise consensus that importing divine standards whole cloth into civil law can be a recipe for division, oppression, and ultimate harm to the church itself. Our nation possesses an Establishment Clause for a reason.” Apparently, believing that our laws should reflect basic natural law principles and that marriage should be—as it has been throughout human history—an institution between one man and one woman makes you a “hard-core integralist” or “dominionist.”
This unserious line of reasoning by French, furthermore, was a bit of a strawman. Evangelicals and Catholics, by-in-large, do not argue for the wholesale importation of divine standards into our civil society. But there’s another aspect of French’s argument that features a clear departure from a Christian conception of prophetic witness: he seemed far more concerned with minimizing division, rather than for Christian advocacy of the good, the beautiful and the true. He also seemed to suggest that laws, leavened by a Christian worldview, would culminate in “oppression” and “harm to the church itself.” How would this happen? French nowhere explained this, instead leaving his reader with a confused political theology that precluded Christians from doing what Christians have done for centuries: calling what is wicked, “wicked.”
Indeed, French went on to argue, “In a diverse, pluralistic republic, granting the same rights to others that we’d like to exercise ourselves should be the default posture of public advocacy and public policy.” Maybe this can be the default position for the ardent secularist committed to public atheism. It should not, however, mark the people of God who are called to warn against laws and policies that will result in harm and calamity. French displayed a more ardent devotion to unrestrained pluralism than to a Christian public witness that decries unjust laws.
In fact, French’s reasoning seemed to entirely confine his concerns to mitigating competing interests between same-sex couples who want to get married and religious freedom protections. But this purely pragmatic concern fails to wrestle with the profound moral and ethical issues involved in a society signaling that same-sex marriage is good. Instead, French argued, “Millions of Americans have formed families and live their lives in deep reliance on Obergefell being good law. It would be profoundly disruptive and unjust to rip out the legal superstructure around which they’ve ordered their lives.”
In a stunning admission, French called a society willing to recapture a natural understanding of the family “unjust.” He also nodded to the fact that the issues involved are not merely between same-sex couples and claims for religious liberty. It is far more complex than that. He noted that these same-sex couples formed “families”—adopting children and placing them in a context outside of God’s good design. Again, Katy Faust’s excellent work, Them Before Us: Why We Need a Global Children’s Rights Movement, is a sharp rebuke to any argument on the issue of same-sex marriage—especially one purporting to arise out of Christian convictions—that refuses to consider the rights of children, and the demise of families.
Christian witness in our present context will necessarily bring division. How could any Christian reading John 15 not come to that conclusion? How could the story of John the Baptist’s demise not lead us to the sobering reality that contending for what is true and good—and demanding it from our civil leaders—might lead to division and hostility? Our concern, however, is not for some magic pluralism. In other words, a biblical conception of Christian engagement in the public square must reject French’s approach, which, in my estimation, is tantamount to moral capitulation. It is the same kind of reasoning deployed by President Biden on the issue of abortion—that he is personally against it but thinks it should be available as a right to women. This is moral lunacy and beyond the pale of a faithful political theology.
Christian prophetic witness, as John Piper styled it, calls us to “get in the face” of our elected leaders, and to call them to uphold true justice. Such courage is needed today and, in the months, and years to come. The Christian pursuit of the good and the true, moreover, must mean more than carving out thin religious exemptions. It means calling what is wicked, “wicked,” so that, in the same vein, we can point people to the goodness of our God.
Towards the end of his life, Martin Luther never lost his willingness to rebuke civil rulers who failed to fulfill their mandates as laid out in Romans 13. In a sermon preached just before his death, Luther directed a seething broadside against civil rulers who had failed to inculcate order and peace within their realm. He called the civil rulers cowards, and argued that they should some day “find courage” to be rulers of peace. “Thus it is also incumbent upon you,” Luther proclaimed, “to keep watch and not to become complacent.” May Christians today find the same courage to speak with conviction, clarity, and to stand, regardless of the consequences, for what is true.
*Image Credit: Pexels