A Political Solution

How to Ordinarily Renew a Nation

The past couple months have been surreal. Megan Basham, Santiago Pliego, and Doug Wilson all appeared on Tucker Carlson. And you’re telling me you still haven’t embraced the vibe shift? Wilson’s interview in particular was wild, i.e., basically a full Gospel presentation for an hour straight. Truly amazing. It’s safe to say that clips from the interview went viral. Only one thing bugged me. Wilson has already addressed it on Blog & Mablog, but not to my satisfaction, as I’m sure he predicted. At issue is his comment that our problems have no political solution because they are “radical and spiritual,” and that they, therefore, require a spiritual solution. Political attempts would be a band aid at best. Only a bottom-up approach will work. That’s Wilson’s reasoning. He insists that he was not negating political action but asserting the most important and basic component of a “both/and” formula.

I reject that there is no political solution, albeit he may be right that our disagreement is one of “emphasis and order, not a disagreement proper.” In short, the political v. spiritual question is not the chicken and egg conundrum it seems at first blush. (I also commend to you Ben Crenshaw’s response thread on the issue.)

Editor’s note: This correction, via Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi mainly, is best read, if you are in Moscow, at Bucer’s Coffee Shop.

Great Renewal

Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi, a roadmap for renewal and governance of post-Reformation England in Edward VI’s administration, is a wonderful work deserving of your time. Especially good is his nigh doxological description of the kingdom of Christ and his explication of the difference between civil and ecclesiastical authority. But we will cut right to the chase—most of the meat for our purposes is in Book Two.

True religion cannot be restored by a corrupt, apathetic ministry. More importantly, every soul is subject to the civil power. It is his job to reform and direct them; it is the magistrate’s duty to restore the clergy and the churches to proper order and worship. The “renewal of this office [clergy] contributes toward the salvation of all.” Neglect of it “endangers” all. Religious renewal is a matter of duty and civil interest. By his office, the magistrate is charged with renewal, out of concern for the wellbeing and happiness of his people, he has a civil interest in doing so.

Models for imitation include David, Solomon, Asa, Hezekiah, Josiah, and Nehemiah.

“When true religion had seriously fallen apart in their times and the priesthood was perniciously corrupted, these men personally undertook the task of the renewal of religion as a matter of royal right and duty.”

First, they “took care before all else that the law of God was very energetically declared and explained to the people.” So, first comes edicts, pertaining both to morals and church function (circa sacra).  

Second, they worked to persuade all to “wholeheartedly” accept and reverence the Lord and his covenant with them. Persuasion follows edicts. The effect of laws is limited without moral persuasion—Bucer cites Cicero, De Legibus, II.5.11 and Plato, Laws, IV, 722b-723a. This is not mass persuasion per se, though it is desirous that the people get on board. It is first persuasion of leaders, representatives, lesser magistrates.

Last, “they reorganized and renewed the estate and ministry of priests and Levites and the entire administration of religion, according to the law of God; and they watched most vigilantly that no one should destroy what they had done.” After edicts and commensurate persuasion, the mission and work of the church must be guaranteed by making sure it is free of corruption and misadministration, as well as external threats.

Althusius provides a similar if slightly more aggressive checklist with reform of the church coming third and fifth in the order—the first goal being to establish “true acknowledgement and worship of God” via edict.  

Bucer notes that in each case of the aforementioned examples, the godly magistrate surrounded himself with advisers (“supreme council”). David consulted leaders (1 Chronicles 13:1) for this purpose. Credentials will not suffice. Men of true character and “endowed and aflame beyond others with the knowledge and love of the Kingdom of Christ. Selection of the right men is admittedly difficult but imperative so that the reformist magistrate can act appropriately and wisely.

The magistrate of renewal should also recruit “approved” evangelists to spread knowledge of the law and gospel throughout the kingdom. This necessarily requires conditions conducive to such preaching. Yes, this requires theological judgment on the part of the magistrate or king and his council.

Bucer is clear that decrees are necessary but insufficient for true restoration and renewal. The souls of the people are entrusted for their nourishment and revival to the supreme magistrate, but he cannot sufficiently satisfy their needs directly or independently.

What he can do is restore order to the church, pass just laws, suppress false teaching, and guarantee true teaching. No one can be a true citizen of the kingdom of Christ except willingly. Hence, the emphasis on persuasion and preaching. At the same time,

“pious princes must plant and propagate the Kingdom of Christ also by the power of the sword… it is their duty not to tolerate anyone who openly opposes and undermines the sound doctrine of the gospel… [and] [t]hose who refuse to be taught the things that are of Christ’s Kingdom should not be tolerated in a Christian commonwealth, much less those who dare to rebel against and vitiate these things.”  

This is right and proper to the duty and interest of the civil power. And yet, Bucer inserts some qualification. This step comes when “the covenant of the Lord has been renewed and the laws of God accepted.” (Of course, this does not mean universal or total acceptance.) Once this has happened, according to the perception of the magistrate, then he is dutybound to “allow none of [his] subjects to violate this covenant openly or transgress these laws.” First comes repair, then comes enforcement.

Althusius advised similarly in Politica. Magistrates are captains, and they must navigate their vessel through stormy, uncharted seas carefully and prudently. His first duty is to establish and promote the true religion. Toleration is not an aspiration but a concession. In the event that dissenters exist, as they invariably do, he should be gracious toward them, so long as they are not damaging the church, and this does not require the tolerance of profane men. But, if the magistrate finds himself in a chaotic, pluralist scenario, he must do the best he can when he can, for “he should not directly oppose the strength of the multitude, but accommodate his sails to the wind as a skillful sailor does, and permit for a time what he cannot prevent.” (My concern is not so much Wilson’s, viz., that we won’t be able to find one righteous man in Sodom to lead us, but that we won’t be able to find one shrewd man to captain us.)

But these qualifications as to prudence and process, do not negate or delay the use of the sword in “planting” the seeds and exercising the means of renewal. Hence, the above quote, viz., that pious princes need not tolerate open and notorious opposition to the gospel or the church. Enemies of the church and religious renewal can be, in principle, halted and subdued even prior to the full apparatus of godly and good law is in place and before the people have embraced the kingdom of Christ fully.  

Obviously, upholding basic morality and order is a prerequisite even for the initial stage. Bucer does not say that licentiousness and idolatry must be permitted until an organic, bottom-up revival has emerged. Renewal need not wait on awakening.

This is why, in part, Bucer begins by tasking the magistrate with the restoration of the internal and external order of the church. And the magistrate is not required to allow others to thwart his planting efforts. For the seeds to really take root and thrive, however, “indoctrination” must run in tandem with edicts. If these things are not balanced, unrest will ensue. Bucer also points out how crafty people can be. An edict banning the mass, in some places, resulted in pockets of dissenters celebrating “communion” three times a day, consumed only by officiating priests, and held in the name of various saints. In other words, Romanist mass. Absent true preaching of true religion and effective “indoctrination,” this kind of maneuver is to be expected. Without balance between edicts and propagation, real change will not occur. Change instigated too quickly could also result in counterproductive backlash. The stability and longevity of the commonwealth being of paramount concern to the magistrate, this is ill-advised, and would stifle any progress unto renewal previously achieved.  

“Indoctrination” being so intricate and indispensable to renewal, Bucer spends considerable time instructing the magistrate on how to reform schools. Most countries will simply be too big and too populated for evangelists alone to persuade. Pedagogical instruction is a more efficient and effective outlet, in many ways, for these purposes. In other words, our present battles over school curriculum are to be expected. Both sides rightly recognize it as a strategic, maybe definitive, battleground. Diametrically opposed ways of life live or die by it. That’s why energy spent on new educational models and forums by American Christians is worthwhile, essential even, for renewal. The good magistrate must pay attention and not from the sidelines. School, especially colleges, is where buy-in is constructed and future propagators of the gospel and morality are forged. None of this is neutral; all of it is political. If possible, the godly magistrate should pass laws ordering parents to catechize their children (“educate and establish their children in Christ’s faith and obedience”), “with a just penalty for those who themselves infect their children with either false doctrine or bad morals or permit them to be infected by others.” This is the school at home (the microcosm of church and state), and, therefore, cannot be neglected by the civil power. Control of the calendar (i.e., holy days) is another pedagogical function available to the magistrate.

That said, even if the training grounds are fully reformed, there remains the problem of selection of appropriate ministers. Bucer charges the magistrate with making sure these roles are filled and filled well—a “duty, not a burden.” Public support for Protestant teachers, as the Massachusetts Constitution (1780) put it, is a good place to start. Tax benefits for true churches, not simply all NGOs of sincerely held belief, is another. Again, public preaching is intricate to Bucer’s program, for reasons already stated. It is not the magistrate’s job to do it himself, but simply make sure it is happening.

Likewise, the keys of the kingdom do not belong to him, but he nevertheless should reform the church when she has fallen into disarray, and protect her when she is healthy. Preaching and teaching of true religion, in various settings, should be promoted and protected for the sake of “indoctrination.” We don’t want hypocrites or heretics, so, while the magistrate can address outward, public action, he must rely on a healthy church and the work of the Spirit to inaugurate true renewal.  

And yet, it is up to the magistrate, the political authority, to initiate all this through the means already described. It is a political solution. Establishing the coercive conditions conducive to conversion is not the same as forced conversion. The civil power cannot, literally or metaphorically, perform the latter, but it can encourage it and provide the best possible soil for it to grow—opportunities, personnel, and environment for renewal is one way to think about it.

Ordinary Means

Restore the churches; make sure they are managed well and doctrinally faithful. Provide for public ministers. Control the curriculum and calendar. Legislate morality. These are all fairly simple things. They do not follow from revival, but rather instigate renewal. In this sense, we should consider them the ordinary means of renewal upon which we should rely rather than banking on extraordinary occurrences. And there are many things shy of reestablishment that the magistrate should and can do, e.g., the sanctification and regulation of marriage or poor relief, as Bucer advises. Law is pedagogical; good law leads men to morality and prepares them for the acceptance of higher things.

One last thing deserves attention. Wilson’s point is well taken that in a depraved, pagan society it would be tough to find a Christian magistrate. Granted. (And I am not accusing him of quietism.) Two responses: 1) for all the talk of post-Christian society and negative world, Christians are still the majority religious group, and vestiges of cultural Christianity still predominates public morals in most of America. We still haven’t had a president willing to say he’s an atheist or Muslim or Buddhist. We are only on our second Catholic president—a showing more disastrous than the first—because of Protestant dominance, which is waning, to be sure. So, as bleak as things are, they are not hopeless. 2) As a matter of duty and political theory, which is what we’re doing here, a magistrate, king, or president need not be a sincere Christian to fulfill his religious role. That is, he is not off the hook vis a vis the church and renewal just because he is personally heterodox or heretical. To be clear, our expectations change given the context, as John Davenport pointed out in his Discourse. But our context is not yet Iran, Turkey, or some European Union political-spiritual hellscape, and our demands should fit our history and tradition. We should continue to insist on renewal and trust in the work of Providence through ordinary means. The answer to our ills is both/and, but it begins with a political action. At least, that’s what Martin Bucer would tell you over a latte.

Image: Edward VI and the Pope: An Allegory of the Reformation.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

6 thoughts on “A Political Solution

  1. Whereas some want a Christian Nation because they want to see the US to return to some form of the Antebellum days of South, Cline wants Christian Nationalism because he wants to see the return of some form of Old Testament Israel in America today. And nothing could be further from what the New Testament says.

    Clines fixation on a return to the past despite the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament and in the demographics of the America from the past makes one question why Cline is so fixated on making America a Christian nation. What are his personal reasons for being so fixated on the past? Perhaps he should share those personal reasons.

    1. Warning: you have exceeded your lifetime allotment of “Outrageously bad faith takes” by several orders of magnitude. This is a serious violation of Normal Person Behavior. Further violations may lead to relentless mockery and derision.

      1. Ryan,
        So says you. I asked Cline to share personal reasons for his convictions. I also stated the obvious about Cline wanting some return to Old Testament times because that is what he cites most of the time when using the Scriptures to argue his case. And so your comment seems hyperbolic to me.

  2. As much as I’m leery of publicly agreeing with Wilson. . . I think he’s got the right of it on this one (except for the postmill bit).
    I’m not convinced that Christians are the majority religious group anymore. Plurality, maybe, but majority? I think not. Particularly if one discounts the huge swath of American “Christianity” that seems content to go along to get along, to say nothing of the distressingly high number of those outright siding with the Regime at every available opportunity.
    More to the point, the American Protestant church itself, across all its many and varied traditions, is not exactly suffering from a surplus of leaders with the courage of their convictions. Not even when it comes to ecclesiastical matters. We’ve been selecting for agreeableness for so long, having conflated that personality trait with the virtue of charity, that one is hard pressed to find anyone in a position of both widespread influence and significant institutional authority with more spine than an amoeba. There are plenty that talk a good game, but most of them are conspicuously lacking anything resembling tangible, concrete action.
    All those abuse and oversight scandals that have come out in the past few decades? I don’t think they’re indicative of a theological problem nearly so much as they’re indicative of church officers not doing their bloody jobs. Not hypocrisy mind you. Very few are malicious. They’re just cowards.
    All of which to say that your project here, while laudable, has more than a whiff of the quixotic to it. As Wilson said, “such men must come from somewhere.”

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